“On the Waterfront”: Welcome to the Masterclass of Filmmaking


On the Waterfront has the most concise 1 I’ve ever seen. This movie is a directorial masterpiece, and this 1 is a prime example of that skill.

Terry (Marlon Brando) calls up to Joey, tricking him to go up to the roof to check on his pigeon coop. Thugs push Joey over the edge and he hits the street. Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) runs out to his body. Watching, Terry laments that he thought the thugs would only rough up Joey. In four and a half minute’s time we have Terry’s entire character established, the main conflict of the thuggery of the union boss established, and the love interest introduced. Meanwhile, our jaws are dropped from the violence and pain, overlaid with the punch of Leonard Bernstein‘s score and Jim Shields‘ sound design. So much information and emotion is conveyed in so economic a sequence. (By the way, if you want to see what a career for a great sound editor looks like, click through on the Shields link.) Really, a movie that moves this fast, and yet is clear, is very rare.

Also, the notion that someone from the docks who talks to prosecutors will be killed is planted here. Guess what the 7 is going to revolve around? And in case the dialogue swept by too fast for you, the imagery of a pigeon being used to bait a stool pigeon will work on your subconscious.


All the information introduced in the 1 begins to develop further here in the 2 and points toward the 8.

Terry complains about the Joey hit to boss man Friendly. Because Terry is a former boxer he’s treated like he’s not particularly bright and certainly not a threat. Pat the dummy on the head and give him a lolly in the form of easy work duty at the docks. Indeed, he is tapped for work when others, a group of outsiders, are not.

Terry has a gang of boys who help him with his pigeon coop. They think he’s cool. All these groups that embrace him now will reject him later in the 8. Overtly, the 2 is Terry’s complaint to Friendly. Subtly, the Trouble is that a man is surrounded by immorality.


The Catholic Church, represented by Karl Malden as the priest, intervenes.

We’ve seen Father observing in the 1 and 2. He prays over Joey’s body and he comes down to the docks to see the situation for himself. Until this moment, though, he affects no one. Then one of the outsiders says there’s no safe place to discuss the union problem and Father volunteers the church basement.

Father is clearly respected, even by the thugs. With his intervention the thuggery has gone from a legal and political issue to a moral one. His action takes the fight to a new level. When he exercises his moral authority, he changes the game.


Basically, the 4 is all the material that has Terry aligned with the Friendly team. The 5 will be when he works against them. The only question is: what will make him turn allegiance? He begins a romantic relationship with Edie. In many movies the girl would lead to the Switch. This movie, though, rejects easy choices.


One of the outsiders is killed while working down in the hold and Terry sees it all. In the 4 Terry has grown closer to Edie and has learned to see the other side’s perspective. Also, Edie is like a sword-wielding saint. She is fierce about right. Her prodding starts Father forward. Her influence on Terry opens his eyes. When Dugan is murdered Terry clearly has a realization moment.

However, if that’s not enough for you or the characters, Father comes to the body and gives a firebrand speech.

[quote]Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure 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 that 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.[/quote]

Terry has already switched before this moment. Father helps the rest of us switch along with him.


Now that Terry, Father and Edie are working together, one thing has to be cleared up. Terry must admit to Edie that her beloved brother was set up by him. Father prompts him to tell her the truth. To me, this is so refreshing. How many movies hold this moment as the climax of an entire plot? The hero/ine has to own up to something painful and the relationship will never survive the admission.

Here’s a grown up movie that addresses the problem in the proper place. This is great 5 stuff. When Terry tells Edie the truth we only see their lips moving. The soundtrack (remember that Shields fellow?) has a boat’s steam whistle shrieking over the whole scene. We see the pain on the actors’ faces and feel the pain within our own eardrums and skulls. To use the tools of the medium to convey this emotion is masterful.

The other conversation Terry needs to have is with his brother about the mismanagement of his fighter career. Here’s where we get the ultra-famous line: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” Again, this confrontation is often the climax of a lesser movie. I bet you remember it as the climax! Nope, just more great 5 stuff.

Terry breaks down Edie’s door in order to make up with her. No political correct feelings of guilt here. He kisses her and she acquiesces. And then, before you can blink, he’s out in the street finding the dead body of his brother, killed by the thugs. We’ve barely time to breathe in between events; the build has such momentum. Terry heads out to confront Friendly.


And the Church intervenes. Father confronts Terry at Friendly’s bar. Terry tells the priest, the representative of the Catholic Church, to go to hell. Father punches him and knocks him off the bar stool.

Father argues the moral and legal case that Terry should testify rather than try to shoot Friendly.


Without a pause from the 6, Father sort of becomes himself again, rubbing his face and asking the bartender for a beer. He hands a beer to Terry, who stares at a picture on the wall of Friendly. The music builds. Terry throws the gun at the picture, shattering the glass.

Terry’s decision to go against Friendly is shown not told. Perfect.


The climax has many points to wrap up, so it runs for a while.

First we have the testimony against Friendly.

Then Terry visits his pigeon coop to find that the gang of devoted boys has killed all the birds.

And then we have the waterfront. Terry arrives for work and is not chosen. All the outsiders and even a homeless bum are called in rather than him. Instead of walking away, though, he heads for the union house to confront Friendly. All of the outsiders run out of the warehouse in order to watch.

Friendly and Terry punch each other until the thugs come and tip the balance.

Father and Edie arrive to pick Terry up off the ground. Father especially prompts him: “Walk.” The outsiders will go back to work if Terry leads the way. If they go in together, the thugs will have lost their power.

And so Terry walks. His face is bloody, his gait is unsteady, but he asks for his longshoreman’s hook which he hangs over his shoulder. I challenge you to watch a bloodied man, bearing the badge of his pain on his shoulder, moving forward to save the livelihood of every other man in this little world, and to not think of Jesus. I believe this was fully intentional, especially after Father’s crucifixion speech at the Switch.

Terry makes it through the door.


Into the warehouse the outsiders go, Friendly yelling impotently at their backs, while the door closes down. Music crescendos, Edie and Father smile at each other, The End.

In discussing the Enneagram the moral weight, especially the influence of the Church, seems strong. When I was watching the movie, though, that was not the case. Brando is mesmerizing. Terry’s character arc is really the focus of the story and of the shot selection. He is given lingering close-ups and the time to inhabit the scene. I would say that the masterful handling of this material is shown in a front-and-center arc with an Enneagram backbone almost hidden away. Powerhouse cast and crew lead to a classic film.

1 Comment

  1. Yeah, I thought this one would run smoothly. Although I’m a little surprised to see such a long Eight. I have nothing against big Eights, but I would not have picked the same Six and Seven as you did. Obviously you made the right call, though — the movie’s like clockwork.

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