English & EAL

On the Waterfront

Lisa Tran

May 10, 2019

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*Originally published in 2011, this post has been updated to meet the latest English study design.

On The Waterfront is usually studied in the Australian curriculum as a Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.


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.

Joey’s Death (Part 1)


Situated amid the vast New Jersey waterfront, 5 men conclude a meeting in the Longshoremen Local 374 shed. The dockworkers’ union head, Johnny Friendly, pats the protagonist, Terry Malloy on the back, cheering him on for the ‘job’ he will soon complete for his boss.

That night, Terry Malloy calls out to Joey Doyle’s apartment from the street outside. Terry claims that he has found Joey’s lost pet pigeon. From his window a few floors up, Joey yells that he is reluctant to come outside because he has to ‘watch [himself] these days.’ A fellow longshoreman, Joey has been disclosing information about Friendly’s organised crime to the Waterfront Crime Commission and is wary that Friendly may take extreme steps to silence him. However, Terry assures him that there is ‘nothing to worry about.’ The two agree to meet on the roof so Terry can return the pigeon home. As Joey disappears from the window, Terry releases the pigeon, which eagerly flutters to the roof by itself – indicating that the pigeon was never ‘lost’ to begin with. Terry strolls to the nearby ‘Johnny Friendly’s Bar’ where he meets up with Friendly’s men. Terry’s brother, Charley who is a part of the mob, asks if the plan went accordingly. Terry replies ‘yeah, it worked’. A moment later they hear Joey’s disturbing scream as he falls from the roof to the street below. Terry is shocked, as he had only thought that the mob was only going to ‘talk to Joey and get him to dummy up’ about the Waterfront Crime Commission meetings. It becomes clear that Terry was used as a decoy to draw Joey onto the roof, where Friendly’s men awaited to send Joey to his death – a severe punishment for betraying Friendly. The men head inside the bar for celebration drinks while Terry remains outside, unnerved at his role in Joey’s death.

The police arrive at the crime scene where neighbours have gathered. A woman says that Joey’s death echoes the death of her son 5 years ago. Joey’s father, who also works on the waterfront, is disappointed that his son didn’t ‘shut up’ and ‘keep quiet’ about the crimes. Although the police try to obtain information, no one will reveal what they know about the homicide. All the local people secretly know that Joey was murdered since ‘he was the only longshoreman that had the guts to talk to the crime investigators’ about Friendly’s illegal operations. They also know that ‘you don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions unless you want to wind up like [Joey].’ At Joey’s side is Father Barry, the local priest, who recites prayers while Joey’s sister Edie grieves over her brother’s untimely death and calls for justice for his murder.

Inside Johnny Friendly’s bar, men gather as Charley counts their earnings. Friendly tells Terry to count some money. However, being uneducated, Terry fails to do so and passes it over to his brother. Terry picks a fight with Big Mac, another of Friendly’s men when the latter teases him about his lack of education. Realising that Terry is acting out since he feels unsettled about Joey’s death, Friendly explains that he stands by his decision to eliminate Joey, arguing that ‘we got the fattest piers and the fattest harbour in the world’ and ‘that Doyle bum, who thinks he can squeal to the Crime Commission’ would have ruined everything. In order to ease Terry’s discomfort, Friendly offers him some money and says that Terry will be the first person to be chosen to work at the docks everyday, meaning that he will get the easiest job available. As Terry leaves, his brother yells out ‘you’ve got a real friend here, now don’t forget it.’ The rest of the men gather for their payday.


At the beginning of the film, Terry Malloy is characterised as a vulnerable character who has been placed in an difficult position by the dictating union leader, Friendly. The dramatic beating music accompanying the opening scene foreshadows an evil and intense event about to occur. While the music escalates to Joey’s unfortunate death, it also metaphorically signals the beginning of Terry’s personal journey that he will struggle through for the majority of the film.

Like many of the other stevedores, Terry’s many years on the waterfront has led him to turn a blind eye from the corruption, exploitation, and other crimes committed by the mob. The opening mise-en-scène contrasts the small Longshoremen Local 374 shed with the enormous freighters and various structures around it. The even smaller men exiting the shed ironically hold all the power on the waterfront since ‘we got the fattest piers in the fattest habour in the world.’ Though the manipulation and murder of others, Kazan immediately establishes that Friendly is the one man that is able to control not only the waterfront operations, but also the longshoremen. The black-and-white shot creates an oppressive atmosphere, highlighting the suffocation of those who work on the docks.

However, unlike the other residents of the waterfront, the murder of his friend Joey is a catalyst for Terry’s awakening to the corruption encapsulating him and all his fellow stevedores. Over time, Friendly has manipulated Terry into becoming his submissive follower, someone who is willing to obey orders and adhere to rules. He is referred to as ‘slugger’ by Friendly, which is ironic as Terry is depicted as someone who simply allows his life to go by, unlike a leader who is ‘striking hard’ as the nickname implies. When Terry lures Joey out for Friendly, he is filmed with a high-angle shot, where the camera looks down on the subject. This demonstrates his lack of power and vulnerability, and invites the audience to feel empathetic for his situation. In contrast, Friendly’s men on the rooftop who are filmed with a low-angle shot, accentuating their power over the people in the apartment or in a more holistic sense, everyone on the waterfront.

Terry’s initial hesitation outside Johnny Friendly’s bar is met with dismissals from the other men. One of Friendly’s men jokingly states that ‘somebody fell of the roof’, demonstrating that they care little about the death of another human being, and more about securing their power and position amongst the workers of the waterfront. While Terry protests, the other men chuckle at the situation, saying that ‘maybe [Joey] could sing but he couldn’t fly’. Canaries are incorporated as a symbol of those who ‘sing’ or speak out against Friendly. In Joey’s case, unfortunately he wasn’t able to ‘fly’ away and be set free, or in other words, escape from Friendly’s control. When everyone returns inside the bar, Terry is left outside, physically enduring the cold but also metaphorically enduring the environment around him – as though he is facing a battle with his conscience. The shutters on Johnny Friendly’s bar windows that Terry peeps through demonstrate that the mob have a world of their own while Terry finally begins to see them from an outsider’s point of view. His awakening consciousness to the horrors that the mob inflicts upon others is emphasised by his separation from Friendly and his crew at the end of the first scene.

On the other hand, a character that is introduced as strong-willed is Edie Doyle. Her presence is juxtaposed against the people around her since she possesses moral value in comparison to everyone else that has been tainted by Friendly. Her light blonde hair is contrasted against the dull, dark colours around her, indicating that she has not been infiltrated by the mob. It is also symbolic of her innocence and naivety, once again highlighting that it has been easy for her to maintain her good virtues, unlike the men who struggle under Friendly. As she hovers over Joey’s body, it is as though she is Joey’s ‘angel’ who has come to help him – to find out who killed her brother. Furthermore, her overwhelming goodness appears to spread to those around her. Edie’s outburst against Father Barry is the catalyst for the priest’s transition, from being an idle preacher ‘hiding in the church’ to someone who will proactively help those suffering on the waterfront.

Important Quotes

‘Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly.’

‘I kept telling him, “Don’t say nothing. Keep quiet, you’ll live longer.”

‘I’ve been on the docks all my life boy, and there’s one thing I learned. You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions unless you want to wind up like that.’

‘Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?’

‘We got the fattest piers in the fattest habour in the world.’

‘Everything moves in and out, we take our cut.’

‘Why shouldn’t we? If we can get it, we’re entitled to it.’

‘…one lousy cheese-eater that Doyle bum, who thinks he can squeal to the crime commission.’

‘You come from Green Point, go back to Green Point. You don’t work here no more.’

‘You got a real friend here. Now don’t forget it.’

Joey’s Coop (Part 2)


The next morning before work Terry feeds the rooftop pigeons at Joey’s Coop. Terry informs a neighbourhood kid named Tommy to be careful around the pigeons because he does not want them to catch a cold. Before Terry heads to the waterfront, he says that the pigeons ‘sure got it made. Eating, sleeping, flying around like crazy, raising gobs of squabs.’

A crowd of men gather at the docks, waiting for their names to be called out for work that day. Despite some of the men’s protests, Pop insists on working that day since he has to make money to pay for Joey’s funeral. Pop gives fellow longshoreman ‘Kayo’ Dugan, Joey’s coat as a gift.

Two men from the Waterfront Crime Commission ask for Terry Malloy. They ask him a few questions about Joey but Terry insists that he ‘ain’t seen nothing…[and he] ain’t saying nothing’. The men also ask if Terry is an ex-prize fighter who retired a couple years ago. Since Terry refuses to talk, the men leave. Terry angrily says to the other longshoremen, ‘how do you like them mutts taking me for a pigeon.’

As a result of Joey’s death, both Father Barry and Edie have come down to the docks to investigate more about the ongoings of the waterfront. The priest says that this is his ‘parish’ and is responsible for seeking justice. Mac begins to call out names of the men selected to work that day with ‘Malloy’ being the first name called out, as Friendly had promised the night before. Each man who receives a tab is selected for work that day. With too many men and not enough jobs, Mac ends up throwing the tabs at the crowd. This causes mayhem as the remaining men wrestle against each other to obtain tabs. Two of Friendly’s men watch nearby laughing at the ‘meatballs’ fight. In an effort to attain a tab for her father, Edie struggles with Terry who is also trying to get one for his friend. After Terry hears that the lady is Joey’s sister, he forfeits the tag. Overseeing the chaos, Father Barry is shocked at the situation, and asks the remaining men if they have a union to protest for their rights. The men explain that that is the way things have happened since Friendly took over. They say that there’s no safe place to talk, but the priest argues that the church is a safe place. The men and Father Barry agree to a meeting at the church.

Inside the warehouse, Terry sits down on a coffee bag reading a magazine – a privilege for the first person chosen from the workers. Charley asks Terry to act as a spy in the congregation to be held later that day. He wants a ‘rundown on the names and the numbers of all the players’ that will show up. Terry says he doesn’t want to since he’ll just be ‘stooling’. His brother argues that ‘stooling is when you rat on your friend’.

At the church, the congregation begins with a just small number of longshoremen. Father Barry urges the men to speak out against Friendly in order to stop the crimes. Dugan explains that the unspoken rule is that all longshoremen are ‘D and D’ – deaf and dumb. No one will reveal any information about Joey Doyle’s death because they are afraid that they may be targeted next. Being unable to get through to the men, the priest settles for a prayer however, they are interrupted when the mob show up and throw rocks into the church. The men inside the church try to escape the raid, but many are stopped by Friendly’s men and are brutally attacked. With everyone scattered around the church, Terry and Edie successfully escape the building together. The attackers take off, leaving a badly injured Dugan behind. When Father Barry discovers Dugan, the latter informs the priest that he has changed his mind about being ‘D and D’. He vows to talk to the Crime Commission – even if it leads to his death.


In contrast to the blasé exterior that Terry presents to those around him, the cinematic framing on the rooftop shows Terry’s continued struggle with his guilty conscience over Joey’s death. With his back positioned against the chimney, this signifies that he is attempting to block out the waterfront, and focus on other aspects of his life. However, it appears as though he cannot completely escape since the waterfront structures emerge through the mist in the background. Symbolically, the rooftop is a place where Terry goes to think about his own morals without the pressures of the world below, and this would have been the case with Joey as well, thus leading the latter to spill to the Crime Commission. Terry’s care of the pigeons demonstrates that the rooftop is a place where he is able to be true to himself. For the first time, he is shown to possess open affection towards something, instead of the indifferent façade that all of Friendly’s workers need to uphold. It is apparent that he has stepped into Joey’s shoes as he has taken over the responsibilities of looking after Joey’s pigeons. This also metaphorically establishes Terry as the ‘new’ Joey – the new figure on the waterfront wishes to conduct himself in a honourable manner. Similarly, Dugan is given Joey’s jacket, which symbolises that Dugan will be taking Joey’s place as the new whistleblower. The attack at the church turns him completely against Friendly, as seen when he and Father Barry make a pact to stop the corruption on the docks.

Meanwhile, the other longshoremen remain fearful of Friendly. When the Crime Commissioner chats to Terry, the men pretend that they don’t know a ‘Terry Malloy’. In this shot, the longshoremen turn their backs away from Terry, demonstrating that even amongst a group if colleagues, each of them would rather protect themselves than their fellow workmate. The idea that the workers are ‘imprisoned’ by Friendly is reiterated through the Hudson River, which divides where the longshoremen work – Hoboken, New Jersey, from New York City on the other side of the stream. Since the Manhattan structures are only slightly visible through the fog, it is represented as a whole other world that the longshoremen will never be able to reach, since they are trapped in Hoboken by the river. Furthermore, the tall Manhattan buildings are difficult to identify, portraying a sense of mystery and unfamiliarity for the workers on the waterfront. Dugan advocates this idea as he states that ‘the waterfront is tougher, Father, like it ain’t part of America’.

The powerlessness of the stevedores continues to be established during the scene when Big Mac chooses people to work. When Big Mac throws the tabs into the crowd of workers, it is as though he is throwing ‘seeds’ at the ‘pigeons’. This firstly demonstrates that Friendly has the power to provide a living to whomever he desires since the men fighting one another depicts a flock of birds pecking at whatever they can. The brawl also demonstrates the poor standard of work ethics under Friendly’s reign. The pounding music in the background creates the sense of disorder and chaos, reinforcing the sense that at the longshoremen are at the bottom of the ladder. The extent of Friendly’s control goes beyond the waterfront and into the church – even though Father Barry promised it would be ‘safe’. When the attendees at the congregation participate in a prayer at the church, they are interrupted by a rock thrown through the window. This illustrates that the longshoremens’ hopes for a better future are being ‘smashed’ by Friendly. An exterior, high-angle shot of the alley behind the church emphasises that there is narrow escape and indeed, no place to hide for the men on the waterfront.

Important Quotes

‘They sure got it made. Eating, sleeping, flying around like crazy, raising gobs of squabs.’

‘Be careful. Don’t spill no water on the floor. I don’t want them to catch a cold.’

‘Johnny Friendly the “great labour worker’’.’

‘Why don’t you keep that big mouth of yours shut.’

‘I’m poorer now than when I started.’

‘I don’t know nothing, I ain’t seen nothing and I’m not saying nothing.’

‘How do you like them mutts taking me for a pigeon.’

‘You think I’m just a gravy-train rider with a turned-around collar, don’t you?’

‘This is my parish. I don’t know how much I can do, but I’ll never find out unless I come down here and take a good look for myself.’

‘I’ve been standing here for five straight mornings and that bum over there looks right through you.’

‘Is this all you do, just take it like this?’

‘The waterfront’s tougher, Father, like it ain’t part of America.’

‘You get up in a meeting, you make a motion, the lights go out, then you go out.’

‘Why me Charley? I feel funny going down there. Besides, I’d just be stooling for you.’

‘Stooling is when you rat on your friend, the guys you’re with.’

‘Johnny wants a favour. Don’t think about it. Do it.’

‘I’m just a potato-eater, but ain’t it as simple as 1, 2, 3?’

‘The only way we can break the mob is to stop letting them get away with murder.’

‘I have a hunch all of you could tell us something about it.’

‘How can we call ourselves Christians and protect these murderers with our silence?’

‘You know who the pistols are. Are you going to keep still until they cut you down one by one?’

‘On the dock, we’ve always been D and D…deaf and dumb.’

‘No matter how much we hate the torpedoes we don’t rat.’

‘What’s rattling to them is telling the truth for you. Can’t you see that?’

‘He’s all right. He’s an old man, they won’t hurt him.’

‘They’ll put the muscle on you too, turned-around collar or not turned-around collar.’

‘You stand up and I’ll stand up with you.’

Terry and Edie (Part 3)


Once safely away from the church, Edie asks whose side Terry’s on –Friendly or Father Barry’s. Terry says he is with himself. A homeless man asks them for money, and shares with Edie that her brother was a ‘saint’ for helping him out. Terry gives him money to stop harassing Edie, and the homeless man leaves, saying that Terry is ‘still a bum’. Edie asks Terry what the homeless man meant, but Terry ignores her question. The two develop a friendship as they stroll through a park discussing other topics such as Edie’s education and their childhood.

At home Edie’s father Pop, declares that he is sending her back to school, St Anne’s. He scolds her for associating herself with Terry since is he is closely knitted with Friendly’s gang. Although it is against her father’s wish, Edie states that she is going to stay in Hoboken because she is determined to find out who murdered Joey.

The next day Edie visits Terry at ‘Joey’s Coop’. One of the pigeons lays an egg, which Terry gives to Edie. When Edie says that ‘even pigeons aren’t peaceful’, Terry argues that at least they are loyal. After some persuading, Edie agrees to a beer with Terry.

At the Saloon, the two discover more about each other. Terry used to be a prizefighter until Friendly ‘bought a piece’ of him. He avoids explaining why he stopped fighting by asking why Edie would care. Edie believes that ‘everyone should take care of everybody else’. On the other hand, Terry’s ‘philosophy of life’ is to ‘do it to him before he do it to you’. The topic shifts to Joey’s death, with Terry believing that everyone is ‘putting the needle’ on him. He says that ‘every man [is] for himself’ otherwise they would end up like Joey. Edie is offended and asks Terry to ‘help [her] for God’s sake’. On their way out of the pub, the two dance together to the wedding ceremony music being played next door, forming an even closer bond. Before they kiss, one of the mob men from the wedding interrupts, stating that Friendly is looking for Terry. When Edie asks whom the man was, Terry warns Edie to stop inquiring about Joey’s death since ‘it ain’t safe’.

Soon after, the Waterfront Crime Commission officer approaches Terry, and serves him with a subpoena. Edie confronts Terry with her suspicion that Friendly was the one who ordered Joey to be killed, but Terry tells her to ‘quit worrying about the truth.’ Frustrated, she retorts that Friendly ‘still owns you…no wonder everyone calls you a bum’ and flees from the pub.

That night, Friendly and his men approach Terry in the street, wondering why he was not at the congregation. Terry argues that he was there but discretely adds that ‘nothing happened.’ The others refuse to believe him since they had discovered that Dugan had a secret session with the Crime Commission. The men order Terry to ‘wise up’ and to stop seeing Edie. Friendly demotes Terry’s position from the loft to work with the sweat gang. Before Friendly’s mob drive off, they warn Terry that they will fix up Dugan for talking to the Crime Commission.

The next day, the men load up a crane with heavy crates containing Irish Whisky. As the load is carried up halfway in the air, one of Friendly’s men sends a signal to purposely release the heavy load, causing the products to fall down and kill Dugan who was standing beneath. Someone cries for a doctor, but Pop says ‘he don’t need a doctor, he needs a priest’.

Later, Father Barry uses Dugan’s death to persuade the men to ‘wise up’ and put a stop to the corruption on the waterfront. He states that their lack of action against the mob is a crucifixion.

On the roof that night, Edie offers the Dugan’s jacket to Terry. They comment on how the pigeons are nervous because a hawk had come over before. The two passionately embrace.


Terry’s new journey shows him struggling between two worlds – the first, Friendly’s, where it is best to remain ‘D and D’ and the second, a world beyond Friendly’s control where one can be righteous and kind to others. When he encounters the homeless man who carries on about Joey’s good deeds, Terry physically pushes the man away, as though he is trying to stow away his conscience. Ironically, it is the homeless man, a person not immersed within the waterfront activities that recognises that Terry is ‘still a bum’, despite Terry’s dismissals. Throughout the film, he repeatedly declares that he is ‘not a bum’, illustrating his sense of denial since a ‘bum’ is someone who has no particular purpose in life, and being under Friendly’s reign has turned him into just that.

However, as Edie and Terry’s relationship grows, Terry becomes drawn out from the grasps of Friendly as Edie urges him to question his beliefs and morals. This is highlighted when he wears one of Edie’s white gloves, demonstrating that he is experimenting with a different perspective on life or ‘trying out’ Edie’s moral values. The white colour illustrates the pure intentions and goodness that Edie is transferring to Terry, giving him a sense of enlightenment. Nevertheless, since he only tries on one glove, emphasising the polarity between Friendly and Edie’s world as it appears as though Terry exists partially in both. Additionally, their light conversation is carried out on a playground, which represents his re-entry into a world of innocence or naivety – a place where he isn’t burdened with issues – much alike young children.

The division between the different groups of people living on the waterfront is reflected through the heavy bird symbolism filtered throughout the film. When Terry refers to the hawk that ‘swoops right down on’ pigeons, this represents Friendly as the ‘hawk’ watching over all the longshoremen, ready to ‘pick’ at anybody that misbehaves. Hawks have become the symbol of wars as they are an aggressive and large bird of prey, highlighting the battle between Friendly and the stevedores. Meanwhile, the workers are characterised as ‘pigeons’, that are being ‘swooped’ or targeted by Friendly. Pigeons tend to be peaceful, loving and gentle, reinforcing the idea that Friendly easily coerces them into doing his bidding. Terry, in particular, is an example of the caged pigeons on the rooftop, as if he is ‘stuck’ inside Friendly’s grip. On a different note, Edie and Terry’s connection with Swifty the pigeon, who lays an egg, represents their romantic relationship blooming as the egg depicts a new beginning, and hope for the future. Yet, the cage fence between Edie and Terry demonstrates that Friendly is preventing their relationship from becoming stronger, and this cannot happen until Terry is set ‘free’.

Friendly’s domination is shown through the mob’s distinguished costume. Their top hats, long thick coats and cigars all depict the wealth of the mob, juxtaposed with the longshoremen who wear thin jackets with holes throughout them. Although Terry is accepted into Friendly’s inner circle, he is not completely established as ‘one of them’ due to his worn out jacket. The idea that Terry is not a part of their group is further established in the scene where Friendly pulls up in his car next to Terry as their respective positions in camera frame highlights the literal and metaphorical distance between them.

In addition to Edie’s angelic figure, religious imagery is portrayed again after Dugan’s unfortunate death. The low-angle shot of Father Barry captures his face against the clear sky above, demonstrating that he is a voice of heaven, urging the longshoremen to do the right thing by God. He declares their silence is a ‘crucifixion’ while Joey and Dugan were martyrs. As Father Barry rises up and above the longshoremen on the cargo, this symbolises the priest ascending to heaven for his good deeds, along with Dugan’s body, which will also be awarded by God.

Important Quotes

‘Your brother was a saint, the only one who ever tried to get me compensation.’

‘You don’t buy me. You’re still a bum.’

‘Who’s calling me a bum?’

‘Don’t pay no attention to him. He’s drunk, he’s falling down. Everything. He’s just a juicehead that hands around the neighbourhood. Don’t pay no attention.’

‘It isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them.’

‘That’s what makes people mean and difficult. People don’t care enough about them.’

‘Pop, I’ve seen things that I know are so wrong. How can I go back to school and keep my mind on things that are just in books that aren’t people living?’

‘I’m going to keep trying to find out who is guilty for Joey.’

‘You know this city is full of hawks? That’s a fact. They hang around on top of big hotels. They spot a pigeon in the park, right down on them.’

‘If another bum comes along and take his place, he really lets him have it.’

‘Even pigeons aren’t peaceful.’

‘There’s one thing about them, they’re very faithful.’

‘Shouldn’t everybody care for everybody else?’

‘Do you want to hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.’

‘There’s not a spark of sentiment, or romance, or human kindness in your whole body.’

‘When things and people get in your way, you knock them aside, get rid of them.’

‘Down here it’s every man for himself.’

‘I’d rather live like an animal than end-up like…’

‘You gotta quit trying to find out about Joey. It ain’t safe.’

‘I ain’t going to eat cheese for no cop and that’s for sure.’

‘Quit worrying about the truth all the time. Worry about yourself.’

‘Pop said Johnny Friendly used to own you. Well I still think he owns you. No wonder everyone calls you a bum.’

‘Guts! Why, that crummy pigeon. He ought to have his neck wrung!’

‘That’s what we get for mixing with this punch-drunk brother of yours. He was alright hanging around for laughs but this is business. I don’t like anyone goofing off on my business.’

‘It’s down in the hold with the sweat gang till you learn your lesson.’

‘He don’t need no doctor. He needs a priest.’

‘Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. Dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow – that’s a crucifixion. Every time the mob puts a crusher on a good man – tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord to see if He was dead.’

‘Go back to your church, Father.’

‘He sees you selling your souls to the mob for a day’s pay.’

‘Only you with God’s help have the power to knock them out for good.’

‘They’re nervous. There was a hawk around here before.’

Terry’s Confession (Part 4)


Outside the church the next day, Terry approaches Father Barry, revealing that he was the one who ‘set Joey Doyle up for the knock off’. Terry then shares his side of the story, concluding that ‘Edie is the first nice thing that’s ever happened to me’. Although he wishes to reveal the truth, Terry is ambivalent as he knows that ‘ratting out’ the mob will also mean that he will be implicating Charley in the process. Seeing that Terry has reached a crossroad, Father Barry responds by encouraging Terry to begin clearing his conscience by approaching Edie about truth.

Terry agrees, and soon meets up with Edie. He finally unveils the truth that he has been desperately hiding from her since Joey’s death. Shocked and terrified at Terry’s involvement in her brother’s murder, Edie hastily runs away from Terry.

Later that day, Terry is back at Joey’s Coop. The Crime Commissioner officer arrives on the rooftop to once again investigate Terry and his link to the mob. This time however, instead of approaching him as an authority, he pretends to be merely taking a rest after visiting several other buildings. The officer strikes up an informal chat, stating that he remembers Terry being beaten up a few years ago in a boxing fight. Terry insists that he actually ‘held that bum up for half a round’ prompting the officer to ask why he then lost the game. Terry responds by uttering that he was just doing ‘some people a favour’, meaning Friendly and his brother.

At the Longshoremen Local 374 shed, Friendly and his men have noticed Terry’s frequent encounters with the Priest and Edie, and debate on whether or not he will betray them by testifying in court. Charley argues for Terry, saying that ‘he’s a good kid’, but Friendly states that he just wants to know if Terry is ‘D and D or a canary’. Consequently, he sends Charley to investigate where his brother lie.

At Friendly’s bidding, Charley organises to pick up Terry on their way to ‘The Garden’, where Terry used to have his boxing competitions. When Terry enters the taxi, Charley informs the driver to firstly make a quick stop at River St. Charley offers his younger brother a lucrative job at a new pier. However, Terry is unsure, since he does not want to continue working for Friendly. Charley demands him to take the job before they reach 437 River St, presumably the location where Terry will be killed for betraying the mob. Desperate, Charley holds a gun against Terry, threatening him to take the job. Stunned at Charley’s actions, Terry calmly says ‘no’ to his brother and slowly pushes the gun away. Charley is overcome with despair. It is revealed why Terry lost the important boxing match that ended his career many years ago. Charley had ordered Terry to purposely lose to Wilson, his opponent, in a strategic move by Friendly to bet against Terry and ultimately reap the earnings. Terry confronts his brother, stating that he could have easily beaten Wilson, ‘I could had class, I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum’. Knowing that he is the reason why Terry is now suffering under the hands of Friendly, Charley gives his brother the gun and allows him to escape, knowing full well that when he returns to Friendly, he will be facing his death for double-crossing his boss.

That same night, Terry arrives at Edie’s home yet she refuses to let him in. Angry that he has failed to share the truth with the authorities, she implores him to listen to his conscience. However, Terry is able to break in. The two reunite by sharing a kiss after he states that ‘I want you to stay with me’. They hear shouting from Friendly’s men on the ground, who yell that Charley is outside waiting for Terry. Afraid that his brother is in danger, Terry hurriedly leaves with Edie running soon after him. Once on the ground, Edie passes her neighbour who whispers, ‘that’s the same way they called Andy, the night I lost him’ suggesting that Terry is walking into a trap.

The two run along a back alley towards the area where the voices were originally heard from. A car suddenly appears, speeding straight towards them. The two narrowly escape the car however, Terry notices Charley who has been shot dead and hung up onto a wall with a hook. Knowing that the murder was the work of Friendly and his men, Terry furiously declares revenge asserting that ‘he will take it out of their skulls’.


Friendly has not only manipulated the stevedores into doing his bidding, but also warped their way of thinking. Terry believes that disclosing information to the authorities is ‘stooling…when you rat on your friend.’ However, Father Barry later clarifies that ‘what’s ratting for them is telling the truth for you, can’t you see that?’ As shown through Terry’s hesitation, Friendly has seemingly brainwashed the longshoremen by replacing what is supposed to be ‘speaking the truth’ or ‘standing up for oneself’ with the words, ‘ratting’ and ‘stooling’. This effectively demonstrates Friendly’s immense power over the men and the lengths he will go to in order to maintain the control.

Terry’s revelation signifies a turning point in the film. As the background music reaches its crescendo, this reflects on the gradual accumulation of Terry’s courage prior to this point, and at the music’s peak, Terry is finally able to cast away his fears and share the complete truth with Edie. In contrast, the beating music also emphasises the shocking truth that is pounding straight towards Edie. The sound is also overbearing, muting Terry’s voice as he reveals the crucial words that will change Edie’s perspective forever. In conjunction with the close-up shot of Edie shaking her head, this reflects her desire to ‘block out’ the painful words as she is struggling with the truth. The back and forth close-up shots of both characters are used to highlight the raw emotion of inner anguish between the two.

After Terry divulges the truth, a transformation within Edie occurs. Kazan begins to portray her as a young woman, rather than the innocent St Anne’s student as shown in earlier scenes. In the scene where the two passionately kiss for the first time, the angelic representation of Edie is once again observed as she is positioned above Terry on top of the rooftop, with the spotlight focused on her hair. Their passionate kiss is as though Terry is accepting and ‘embracing’ the truth. This has been the image created of Edie during the first portion of the film, where her purity and goodness is instilled into others. After the revelation of Terry’s involvement in her brother’s death however, Edie is forced to step out of her naïve phase in order to cope with the truth. The maturation is depicted through her parallel emerging sexuality. In the scene where Terry breaks into her home, she wears only a thin white slip, demonstrating that she has moved into a more sophisticated frame of mind, which allows her to confront and handle the evil forces around her.

Meanwhile, Terry’s confidence and perseverance continues to grow. He confesses that ‘I could’ve had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody. Instead of a bum which is what I am.’ The fact that he is facing the truth demonstrates that he is finally ready to turn things around. He repeatedly uses the pronoun, ‘I’, which illustrates that he has developed self-preservation, as he will no long remain submissive to Friendly. Only when Terry makes the decision to challenge Friendly is he, for the first time, shot against an open sky. It is as though he has become another one of ‘God’s messenger’s sent from heaven, since he joins Kazan’s earlier compositions of Father Barry and Edie shot against the sky. When Terry runs outside after hearing Charley’s name from down below Edie’s apartment, the lighting in the back alley expresses the good versus evil polarity or in other words, Terry versus Friendly. At the end of the scene, Terry walks from the darkness into the light, depicting that he is finally escaping Friendly’s world and embracing his new role as the ‘canary’ of the waterfront.

Like many of the other characters in On the Waterfront, Charley is ridden with a guilty conscience, however in his case, it originates from Terry’s old boxing days. The venetian blind covering the window at the back of the taxi shuts out the outside world, indicating that the two brothers can reveal their true feelings to each other in private. After placing the gun against his brother, Charley realises that his loyalty belongs to his brother, not Friendly. For several years, he has put Friendly above his brother’s needs and as a result, Terry had to sacrifice his boxing career. His new sense of regret is shown through his fiddling of his black gloves. In contrast with Edie’s white gloves which represent goodness and purity, the black gloves symbolise Friendly’s world, a place filled with darkness and evil. It demonstrates that Charley has been ‘stuck inside’ Friendly’s world, yet when he feels responsible for the damage he has inflicted on Terry, he pulls one glove off, demonstrating that he is taking a step away from Friendly. Charley aims to redeem himself by poignantly sacrificing his own life to save Terry from the clutches of Friendly once again. The image of Charley’s death mirrors the image of Jesus on the cross. Hooked up against the wall, Charley is portrayed as a martyr who sacrificed his life for others. The stevedores often use the metallic hooks at work, and throughout the film many characters including Terry and Dugan are shown with the hooks hanging onto their shoulders, highlighting Friendly’s firm grip on these men.

Important Quotes

‘Favour, who am I kidding? It’s “do it or else.”’

‘It’s like carrying a monkey on my back’

‘Question of “who rides who.”’

‘If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel.’

‘And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?’

‘Conscience – that stuff can drive you nuts.’

‘That joker from the crime commissioner’s office.’

‘You mean call a cop? Are you kidding?’

‘You was a Golden Warrior once.’

‘It was all over, except for the lousy bet!’

‘When those guys want to win a bet, there’s nothing they won’t stop at.’

‘He’s a bum.’

‘This girl and the father, they got their hooks in the kid so deep he doesn’t even know which end is up any more.’

‘All I want to know is: is he D and D or is he a canary?’

‘Maybe the boy is out of line, but he’s just a confused kid!’

‘First he crosses me in public and gets away with it, then the next joker, pretty soon I’m just another fellow around here!’

‘…It’s time to think about getting some ambition.’

‘There’s more to this than I thought, Charley. I’m telling you there’s a lot more.’

‘I could’ve been a lot better, Charley.’

‘Take the job Terry. No questions, take it.’

‘You could have been another Billy Conn.’

‘That skunk we got you for a manager he brought you along too fast.’

‘It wasn’t him Charley. It was you.’

‘You should’ve taken care of me a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take dives for short-end money.’

‘I could’ve had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody. Instead of a bum which is what I am. Let’s face it.’

‘That’s the same way they called Andy, the night I lost him.’

‘I’m going to take it out of their skulls.’

Essay Prompts

1. Edie is depicted as an angel that saves Terry. To what extent do you agree?

2. On the Waterfront portrays a world where people are only successful through money and violence.

3. We are able to understand the moral struggles of the characters through the cinematic devices used in On the Waterfront.

4. On the Waterfront demonstrates that silence cannot be achieved through murder.

5. The actions of only a few individuals can result in a revolution. Discuss.

6. Terry is the true hero of On the Waterfront. Do you agree?

7. Joey and Edie are both catalysts for Terry’s transition.

8. How does the film show Terry’s emotional and moral struggle?

9. Joey is said to be able to ‘sing but he couldn’t fly’ after talking with the crime commission. How does Terry prove Johnny Friendly wrong?

10. ‘You got a real friend here. Now don’t forget it.’ On the Waterfront shows that ‘real friends’ can betray you.

11. ‘Why don’t you keep that big mouth of yours shut.’ On the Waterfront demonstrates that remaining silent is the only way to survive under Johnny Friendly’s reign.

12. ‘You stand up and I’ll stand up with you.’ It is only through the longshoremen’s group effort that they are able to overthrow Johnny Friendly. Discuss.

13. On the Waterfront shows that redemption is only possible if you pay the ultimate price.

14. The music in On the Waterfront provides a strong portrayal of Terry’s transitional stages throughout the film.

15. Terry is a ‘bum’. To what extent do you agree?

16. ‘Pop, I’ve seen things that I know are so wrong’. Why is Edie so clear on the wrongdoings on the waterfront, yet the men are blind to all the crimes?

17. Joey died because he chose to tell the truth rather than taking the advice, ‘quit worrying about the truth all the time. Worry about yourself.’ What were the consequences of only ‘worrying about yourself’?

18. ‘Conscience – that stuff can drive you nuts.’ The men on the waterfront have no conscience. Discuss.

19. ‘It’s none of your business! Mind your own business.’ Only when Terry begins to ignore his own advice do things begin to change On the Waterfront. Discuss.

20. On the Waterfront shows that power and money can destroy a man’s soul.

21. On the Waterfront shows that threats are a powerful tool.

22. Terry’s success at the end of the film demonstrates that it is never too late to change for the better.

23. Elia Kazan shows us that loyalty can be fulfilling but also a burden.

24. Self-preservation is essential in order for the characters to stand up for themselves. To what extent do you agree?

25. On the Waterfront is a story about a hero and his struggles to become ‘someone’.

26. Johnny Friendly is as much a victim as those he exploits. Do you agree?

27. Terry Malloy is an ambiguous character at the beginning of On the Waterfront. How does Elia Kazan demonstrate ambiguity through cinematic devices?

28. Through cinematic techniques, On the Waterfront demonstrates the oppression of those who live by the waterfront. Discuss.

29. Charley Malloy is the true hero of On the Waterfront. Do you agree?

30. How does Elia Kazan depict the segregation between the rich and the poor?

Study Tips

Glossary of Film techniques

Have a glossary of film techniques with you as you watch the movie. Having a list will prompt you to look out for specific techniques on screen that may not be discussed in class or in study guides. Try to search for interesting and unique film techniques used in order to provide an original response in essays.

Watch with subtitles

When you watch with subtitles you are not only seeing and hearing, but also reading. This will help reinforce the dialogue into your memory and additionally, you can also accurately jot down useful quotes.

Have a controller ready to pause

With movies, it is tempting to simply keep watching as the movie plays. Have your controller with you ready to pause whenever you are analysing particular scenes, for example, mise-en-scène or noting down dialogue. You will find that you will pick up on small special effects or props that you may have missed when playing the film at normal speed.

Watch commentary and other DVD special features

The commentary in DVDs usually gives you further insight into the story, and On the Waterfront is no exception. Often the director, writers or other people involved in creating the film will discuss the reasons behind their decisions in making particular scenes or choosing particular actors for a role. In the commentary for On the Waterfront, Richard Schikel (critic/writer) and Jeff Young (biographer) provide an in-depth discussion about the taxi scene, which is a great study resource. Their explanations on about the camera effects, props, and dialogue are all film techniques you can include in your essay.

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