English & EAL

On the Waterfront: Themes & Symbols

Lisa Tran

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Power Corruption

Johnny Friendly’s maintenance of power involves controlling several aspects on the waterfront – from the operations to the stevedores. Firstly, threats are repeatedly made against all the longshoremen in an effort to ensure that if anyone dares to act out against Friendly, they are sure to meet dire consequences. Their fear is reinforced through the various murders committed by the gang, most of which are the deaths another longshoremen, thus warning the workers that any one of them may be next. Although Friendly is clearly behind the homicides, the longshoremen and their families are unwilling to speak to the authorities, as they know full well that they would be risking their lives. This demonstrates their lack of protection and vulnerability in the hands of the union leader, which is exactly what he has aimed to establish.


Faith is a strong underlying theme set forth by Father Barry and the church. The priest’s constant remainder of what is right and wrong urges the men to step outside Friendy’s grasp and begin to think about themselves. When Father Barry conducts the congregation, the interruption caused by the mob falters the longshoremen’s hopes, since Friendly’s power can even reach as far as a church, where people are supposed to be ‘safe’. To do what is morally correct is a simple concept but one that is difficult for the longshoremen to embrace. It is only when they begin to have faith in their actions that things begin to change on the waterfront.


The film poses the question, what is true loyalty? Friendly pretends to be looking after the longshoremen by sending out loans and offering them better work positions, for example, Terry on the loft. However, in reality Friendly uses this action to manipulate the men to his advantage. It is a tactic to ensure that the longshoremen believe that they in return, have to support Friendly. An additional tactic of Friendly’s manipulation is shown though the infiltration of the longshoremen’s minds. The words ‘rat’ and ‘stool’ prevent the men from speaking out since they believe that they will betray one another. Terry believes that he will ‘rat’ on his friends when in fact, he is simply telling the truth. He ultimately learns that instead of abiding by Friendly, he needs to be loyal to himself, and this eventually saves himself and the other longshoremen from the clutches of the union leader. The name ‘Friendly’ is ironic since he is hardly a ‘friend’ but a ‘nemesis’ of all those who reside on the waterfront.


Throughout Terry’s personal journey, it is clear that he is uncertain about his feelings and thoughts in regards to various aspects of his life, from his low-ranking position as a stevedore, Joey’s death and Friendly’s involvement, the longshoremen’s lack of rights, to Edie’s unique perspective. His initial ambivalence after Joey’s death is highlighted through the thick mist that covers the city and consequently obscures the people’s vision. At the end of the film when he is finally resolute on overthrowing Friendly, the omnipresent fog that sweeps over Hoboken suddenly disappears, reflecting that his mind has now ‘cleared up’ or that he has an ‘unclouded vision’. His behaviour shifts from an introverted person who appears uncomfortable in his own skin as he refuses to look people eye-to-eye and constantly chews gum, to someone who possesses a confident stance, standing tall and proud.


On the Waterfront emphasises that it is never too late to redeem oneself. The religious imagery of Joey, Dugan and Charley ascending to heaven demonstrate that although they had spent much of their life turning a blind eye to the indiscretions of Friendly and his men, their actions at the very end of their lifespan allowed them to compensate for their sins.



Bird symbolism is heavily embedded throughout On the Waterfront. The longshoremen represent pigeons, as they are docile and delicate in the hands of Friendly, who is portrayed as the ‘hawk’ who swoops above at them, keeping his watchful eyes on each and every pigeon in case they misbehave. Kazan often films Terry positioned behind Joey’s Coop fence, therefore characterising Terry as a pigeon stuck in a cage, as if bound by Friendly into a small world that he cannot escape. When the longshoremen await work on the docks, the recurrent high-angle shots peer down at them, depicting them as a flock of birds, rummaging around. Much like pigeons, they compete with one another when ‘pecking’ at the tabs that Big Mac throws at them, as if the tabs are like ‘seeds’.

Instead of being ‘D and D’, those who ‘sing’ or in other words, speak out against Friendly are labeled ‘canaries’, since these birds are most notably recognised for their singing behaviour. Canaries were once used as a barometer for air quality down in mines. If there were toxic gases in the mines, this would subsequently lead to the canary’s death as this type of bird is extremely sensitive to air borne pollutants. Thus, this would be an indication for miners of whether or not it was safe to work in the pit. The bird’s self-sacrifice parallels that of Joey and Dugan, who tried their best to help out the other longshoremen, yet both met their deaths after ‘singing’ out against Johnny Friendly.


Originally named The Hook but eventually changed to On the Waterfront, the sharp tool is an important representative of Friendly’s power over the men. All the longshoremen carry silver hooks on their shoulders as part of their work on the docks, but from another view, it is as though Friendly has ‘hooked’ onto the men – and thus, they cannot escape the union leader. Like many other words used in the film, it is a pun, as ‘hook’ is also a term used in boxing, meaning a short swinging punch with the elbow bent.

Hudson River and New York City

The river is always subtly lurking in the background of several scenes throughout the film. It acts as a metaphorical barrier that prevents the men from escaping Friendly’s grasp as they appear to be ‘trapped’ on the Hoboken docks. The ever-present fog is a veil that manages to conceal Manhattan on the other side of the river. Since the city’s silhouette barely peeps through, it portrays a sense of mystery and unknown to the stevedores who can seemingly never leave Hoboken. At the end of the film however, when Friendly no longer exerts any control over the men, the shot of the Hudson River and the city on the other side is crystal clear. The outlines of the skyscrapers, which were once unidentifiable, are now easy to recognise, demonstrating that the men are free, as their vision is no longer clouded by Friendly.


Gloves have significant meaning in two key scenes in On the Waterfront. Most notably, Edie’s white glove symbolises a ‘good’ world, a place that is peaceful and pure. It reflects Edie’s personality as she conducts herself virtuously and with amiability. When Terry wears one of her gloves, it demonstrates that he is ‘trying on’ her perspective of life, where ‘everybody [should] care about everybody else’. On the other hand, when Charley and Terry share an intimate conversation in the taxi, Charley’s black gloves represent Friendly’s ‘evil’ world. Charley begins to feel uncomfortable in his clothing and removes a glove when he confronts the truth about being solely responsible for coercing Terry into forfeiting his career and subsequently becoming just another longshoremen. His removal of the glove depicts the notion that Charley will no longer be manipulated and controlled by Friendly, and is essentially, taking a step out of Friendly’s oppressive world.


On the surface, the windbreaker is simply a jacket that is passed amongst the longshoremen, in particular, from Joey to Dugan to Terry. The sharing of the jacket represents camaraderie and brotherhood, since the men have little money to spend on buying warm clothes and as a result, most of their clothing has been worn through. This is a stark comparison with the mob, who are proud owners of long thick coats with scarves, hats and gloves to protect them from the Hoboken bitter cold weather. Symbolically, the jacket motivates the three men stand up to Friendly. Firstly, Joey talks to the Crime Commission yet before he is able to do any damage to the mob, he is found dead. As a result, his jacket is passed to Dugan, who later on musters the courage to continue in Joey’s shoes and reveal thirty-nine pages worth of notes about Friendly’s operations to the Crime Commission. Unfortunately, Friendly manages to successfully silence Dugan. The windbreaker is ultimately passed to Terry who testifies in court and defeats Friendly once and for all. The jacket demonstrates that even with murder, the truth cannot be silenced.

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