On the Waterfront - text analysis - I coulda been a contender.

This is a guest post - On the Waterfront Text Analysis - by Naveen Dias-Wanigasekera

On the Waterfront Text Analysis SAC Terry says to Charley: “ I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am.” Does the film support Terry’s judgment of himself? Elia Kazan’s film, “On the Waterfront”, tells the story of a washed up ex-boxer named Terry Malloy and his fight against the organised crime syndicate controlling the shipping docks of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1954, but more importantly, according to Kazan himself: “This motion picture is about one thing only: a young man who has let his dignity slip away, and regains it.” Under Kazan’s direction, a variety of filming techniques and repeated symbols and motifs are carefully utilised to constantly support Terry’s self-perception throughout the film. However, it is this judgement of himself which evolves as a result of his profound development in both his character and his conviction to act upon his underlying moral values during the course of the film; from a lazy, insignificant “bum”, to a “somebody” who is respected for the sacrifices which he makes on behalf of his community. This transformation is not entirely self-induced, but rather brought on by a number of factors including his unwitting participation in Joey Doyle’s murder, his growing relationship and often intimate interactions with Edie, and Father Barry’s pressing care and Catholic influence.

In the beginning of the film, Kazan reveals Terry as lazy, selfish and insignificant, and due to the way he is treated by others in the community, Terry also believes himself to be nothing more than a “bum”. Since he is no longer his own man, but rather a mere pawn for Friendly to take advantage of, Terry is even held in a lower regard than the homeless man outside the church who refuses his charity and calls him a bum. Through this event, Kazan supports Terry’s negative self-perception by suggesting that despite the guarantee of security and money that comes with being loyal to Friendly’s mob, even the life of an impoverished beggar is preferable to the life that Terry is living, as the beggar is at least outside the influence of the mob, and free of the mental conflict and distress which results from being involved in such an unjust system.

Although Terry exhibits signs of being a respectable young man at times, which are revealed through his growing guilt for his involvement in Joey’s murder and the way he looks after and cares for his pigeons, not many people see this in Terry, as these redeeming qualities are overshadowed by the foreboding reputation of the corrupt union. On top of being alienated within the town, Terry is even at the bottom of the hierarchy in Friendly’s mob, and he feels as though he is worthless and disposable amongst the gang members, who insult his intelligence: “What mind? The only education he ever got was the Ref counting to ten.” Terry’s body language and speech are also key indicators of his development throughout the film, because initially, his demeanour is reserved and unsure; his shoulders are slouched, he nervously fiddles with his hands in his pockets, and his speech mumbled as he struggles to articulate his feelings properly. But eventually, Terry is able to stand tall, proud, and is confident and authoritative in speech: “I ain’t a bum Edie. I’m gonna go down there and get my rights.” Such a high degree of self-confidence and understanding of his duty was lacking in the opening scenes of the film, and as a result, both Terry and the audience develop a far more positive opinion of him as a person as the film progresses.

Although Terry is initially shown in a negative light, Kazan purposely allows Edie to see through Terry’s tough-guy façade, glimpsing signs of a greater man who is far more than just an insignificant ‘bum’, so that not only Terry, but the audience as well, are encouraged to share in this view. In order to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the docks, Terry lives according to the philosophy of “do it to him before he does it to you”, without ever fully realising that such a ruthless attitude means to live “like an animal”; like pigeons amongst hawks. This symbolism using reference to birds is constantly weaved into the film’s dialogue, highlighting the fact that the longshoremen and the rest of the community are dominated through fear and corruption by the mob, like helpless pigeons being swooped on by hawks. However, this vicious and primitive way of life is challenged by Edie’s idealistic and somewhat naïve view of the world; that “everybody [should] care for everybody else”.

Edie is portrayed as an angelic figure throughout the film by Kazan, who chooses to show her predominantly in bright light and juxtaposes her to crosses so as to create this saintly depiction, which is quite fitting, because for Terry she is very much a saviour. Her careful, caring attitudes and values leave an impression on Terry, forcing him to question the very man he has let himself become, and triggering his initial desire to become something more; a “somebody”.

The director uses Edie as the film’s main vessel in opening the audience’s eyes to Terry’s transformation, as her loving approach towards him reveals admirable qualities that show his potential to become much more of a man than the mere “bum” which he perceives himself to be at the time. Edie is not the only driving influence behind Terry’s transformation, and with such allies as Father Barry also ‘in his corner’, Terry is able to come to terms with the “bum” that he has let himself become, and realise his potential to change into a “contender” through action rather than his usual passive observation and disregard of the immoral and unlawful activity around him. At first he is reluctant, telling Edie that “there’s nothin’ [he] can do”. However, Father Barry is able to put it to Terry clearly, largely through his famous speech in the ship’s hold: “Every time the mob puts the crush on a good man; tries to stop him 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.”

Elia Kazan chooses to cut to a close-up shot of Terry deep in thought and biting his knuckles while Father Barry says this line, in order to emphasise the conflicting emotions which Terry is attempting to deal with, between his allegiance to the mob and his brother Charley, and his will to do the right thing by Edie, the community, and his own conscience. It is important to note that in this scene, while the longshoremen are situated in the lowest levels of the ship, Friendly and his gangsters are above them. Kazan uses a camera angle in their perspective, directed down at the longshoremen to illustrate the mob’s power and social position, and also to show them as hawks eyeing their prey; linking back to the recurring symbol of hawks and pigeons. Father Barry’s indirect pleas clearly get through to Terry, as he is inspired by the priest’s unwavering conviction and bravery to rebel in the face of evil, and follows suit; he puts his newfound faith into action by punching one of Johnny Friendly’s goons down in plain view of Friendly and his gang, to stop them from throwing something at Father Barry. By including this, Kazan shows that with this choice, Terry is suddenly a contender again, and able to wear the symbol of justice and rebellion against mob rule; Joey’s jacket. Suddenly, both Terry himself and the audience see him as a man who is ready to rise up and achieve “much much more”; a view which is confirmed when Terry finally chooses to testify against the mob in court.

The later scenes of the film clearly show all of the changes which Terry has undergone, and his newfound self-image is heavily supported by Kazan, particularly in the taxi scene with Charley, and the final fight with Friendly on the docks. The taxi scene stands out because of the genuineness of the love Terry and Charley reveal for each other. It is clear that the waterfront world is full of fear, moral compromise and misplaced loyalty, but this is a moment of clarity where the brothers find each other again through a mutual confession. When Terry says “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am”, it is not only the first time he has ever voiced these thoughts to his brother Charley, but it is more significantly the first time he has ever voiced them to himself. Terry finally sees that the problem and solution regarding the corruption on the docks is black and white, which as Kazan intended, is mirrored by the black and white format in which the film was shot. He realises that he cannot fully free himself of his reputation as a bum unless he takes some real action against the mob, and eventually makes the right decision by testifying against the mob in court.

The final scene in which Terry confronts and fights with Friendly on the docks portrays his final transformation from a “bum” into a “somebody”, and crucially, is visually reminiscent of a boxing match. The audience is encouraged to recognize this as a rematch of the fight that Terry threw against Wilson, as the dockworkers are visually framed by the fence and the camera as though they are spectators in the stands, eagerly watching in the hope that their champion will win. Being an ex-boxer, Terry has the advantage over Friendly, and one of the longshoremen even remarks: "he fights like he used to", until in an act of cowardice, Friendly unfairly orders his gang to beat up Terry for him. Terry is knocked down, and although it would appear to be a ‘K.O.’, Father Barry once again pushes him in the right direction, urging Terry to stand up and saying, almost sadistically: "Johnny Friendly's laying odds that you won't get up”.

Kazan intentionally wrote this dialogue into the script, because in the real match against Wilson, Terry didn't get up as he was blindly following the mob’s rule, but this time the audience sees Terry defying Friendly, and defying the lousy bet, thus proving that he is a contender and not a bum; not just to the dockworkers, but to himself and the audience as well. In much the same way that he allows himself to participate in Joey's murder, Terry threw the match against Wilson as “a favour” for Johnny Friendly, when in reality “it was do it or else". By allowing Friendly to “buy a piece of” him, Terry falls into a circle of self-destruction; sacrificing his dignity and his soul, much like the dockworkers who choose to play “deaf and dumb” rather than fighting against the injustice on their docks, and the film sways the audience to share in the low opinion which he and others in the town have of him.

As the film progresses however, with positive influences such as Edie and Father Barry, so too does Terry’s character, and in turn, his judgement of himself. Kazan continues to make the film support this self-perception through a transformation in Marlon Brando’s dialogue and acting of Terry, which reflects his transformation within the film from a “bum” into a “somebody”. Still, although Terry is depicted as a “contender” in the end, Kazan chooses to conclude the film by showing the world through Terry’s blurred vision, as a reminder to the audience that nothing is ever certain in this world.

Mark: Very High

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