In On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), once a promising prize fighter, is messenger and errand runner for Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and the corrupt men who run the docks. One night, his job is to coax Joey Doyle, a well liked young man who plans on testifying against the mob, to go up to the roof of his apartment building. Terry doesn’t realize until it is too late that he is a pawn helping to carry out a murder. As Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and the local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), start snooping around the dock for answers, Terry becomes conflicted. He is one of the few lucky men who get to work every day because of his mob connections, yet sees the pain he inadvertently caused through just doing what he was told. As Terry’s guilt rises, he becomes closer to Edie in a partially romantic, partially protective relationship.
Terry knows he can’t be with Edie or keep her protected from Friendly and his thugs if he doesn’t come forward to help put a stop to them. But soon, another man seeks out confidence in Father Barry about testifying against Friendly, but he is killed in what is supposed to look like an accident. “Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.” That is especially hard when the right thing is so dangerous.
For some people, it may be hard to sympathize or identify with Terry, until the iconic “I coulda been a contender” scene in the taxi cab. It is there that all of Terry’s cards are out on the table and we see that his mob days run back further than just being a messenger boy on the docks. In his time as a prize fighter, his glory days full of so much potential, he took dives for the mob, just to help Friendly score some petty cash and earn a small climb up the dishonest ladder. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but Terry looks around now and realizes that got him nowhere. He now feels terrible about the dirty work he’s involved with and the potential he threw away. For anyone who was still on the fence about Terry, their heart aches for him after that scene.
Brando earned his first Oscar win for his driving role as Terry. He is perfectly unrefined, often chewing with mouth open and leans against things. Within the workings of the mob, Brando makes Terry too trusting at first, then resentful, and grows to becoming lazy and defiant as his conscience grows. Around Edie, his guilt pull him towards her and transforms him into a charming young man in his ignorant wise-guy ways. But the powerful ending, that I dare not ruin for any newbies, is where Brando really gives Terry his finest moment.
Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a story of conscience, courage, integrity and regret. Not only is the film based off some real life corruption and racketeering in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but Kazan choose to make this film to help illustrate his viewpoint in his decision to identify former Communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Whether or not you keep the film’s realistic or political influences in mind, On the Waterfront is a class must-see for everyone.
“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”