In 1952, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (which led investigations into possible pro-Communist propaganda in Hollywood) called director Elia Kazan to provide the names of people that were in the Communist party. After initially refusing to give up any names, he relented and named eight former members of the Group Theater. Afterwards, Kazan lost a lot of friends in the film industry.
So where does On the Waterfront come into all of this? Some people believe that this film was Elia Kazan’s apology, or his excuse, to Hollywood for his actions in the HUAC scandal. Whatever your opinion of Kazan is, there’s no denying that he gave us some great films (East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire). And On the Waterfront is absolutely one the best movies I have ever seen in my life.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-prize fighter who finds himself working as a longshoreman for corrupt union mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a man who uses his power to instill fear into his workers with threats of death for anyone who breaks the D & D (deaf and dumb) code. When Terry realizes that he unknowingly set up the death of a worker who was ready to testify against Friendly and his cronies, he is consumed by guilt, but is conflicted as to what to do: inform the police about the murder and put his life on the line to do the right thing or play D & D and continue to allow Friendly to bestow his corrupt leadership on the docks.
This movie has some really great motifs, the most important being pigeons. Pigeons in this movie symbolize a number of things, however two of these themes are sensitivity and snitching.
Terry Malloy, although he acts tough and masculine (he is a former boxer, after all) is actually a very caring and sensitive man. This is portrayed in the way he takes care of the pigeons he has in a coop. You could also say that Terry, in a symbolic sense, is a pigeon: in those scenes, he is seen in the cage among them. The whole talk he has about hawks and pigeons are symbolic of the situations in this movie: the hawks (Johnny Friendly and his cronies) and the pigeons (the longshoremen).
However, pigeons also symbolize being a snitch, which is the essential conflict in this movie that Terry has. When the police come to the docks to question Terry, afterwards you hear him saying “How do you like them mugs taking me for a pigeon?!”
Also, the pigeon imagery is great in this movie as well. A couple of scenes that come to mind are when the union boss throws the tag numbers into crowd of longshoremen that are desperate to work and they attack the tags like a flock of pigeons going after bread crumbs; and when Terry stands up to Johnny Friendly at the end of the movie all the longshoremen are lined up everywhere, like birds on a wire, just watching everything unfold.
Another motif that I quite liked when I first saw this was Joey Doyle’s jacket. Johnny Friendly kills Joey Doyle for becoming an informer for the police. After his death, his jacket is passed onto a man named Kayo Dugan, who also becomes an informer for the police and is also killed by Johnny Friendly. Terry is the last person the jacket is passed onto. The jacket is like a symbol for doing the right thing in the face of corruption, even if it will brand you a snitch.
Another thing I loved about this movie is Marlon Brando. His acting in this is amazing. I remember hearing someone say when you watch this movie to watch what Brando does with his hands when he delivers dialogue. A great scene to watch out for this is the scene with Edie Doyle’s glove, which was improvised by Brando. His body language depicts that of a masculine, but sensitive man. Brando was completely immersed in the character of Terry Malloy, a testament to his training as a method actor.
This movie won 8 academy awards in 1954:
- Best Actor in a Leading Role: Marlon Brando (his first academy award)
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront was her big screen debut)
- Best Art Direction and Set Direction, Black and White: Richard Day
- Best Cinematography, Black and White: Boris Kaufman
- Best Film Editing: Gene Milford
- Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay: Budd Schulberg
- Best Director: Elia Kazan
- Best Picture
Elia Kazan may have meant this film as an excuse or an apology on behalf of his actions during the HUAC controversy, and the themes of “snitching” may be an indication towards his actions. However, my interpretation of this film is this: sitting in silence while the powers that be walk all over you is not worth it when your life is at stake, and it only takes one person choosing to do the right thing to spark a movement.
Many people may not agree with what Elia Kazan did back in 1952, however, you can never deny his power as a director, and On the Waterfront delivered in 1954, and it still delivers today.