Somber music plays over the opening credits. We see a large ship in a harbor as insistent drums play. Men are walking up the dock towards the road, and a dockworker is dismissed for a break. As suspenseful jazz music plays, the dockworker arrives outside an apartment and calls up to a man named “Joey.” When Joey opens the window, he greets the dockworker, whose name is Terry, and Terry pulls out a pigeon and says, “I got one of your birds. I recognized him by the band.” Joey tells him that it must be one of his birds that he lost in the last race. Terry offers to bring the bird to Joey’s loft and the two men say their goodbyes, as the camera pans up to the roof of the apartment building, where two men can be seen looking down in silhouette. Menacing and dramatic music plays. Abruptly, Terry lets the pigeon go, and it goes flying up to the roof.
The scene shifts to outside a bar called “Johnny Friendly’s Bar,” where a group of fedora-clad, cigar-smoking men are standing. Terry walks up and stands beside them, and they ask him how it went. He assures them that he sent the pigeon flying up to the roof, and we suddenly see Joey falling off the roof to his death. One of the mobsters standing outside the bar turns to another and says that he thinks someone fell off the roof, nodding. Terry is suddenly confused, and expresses that he thought the two men on the roof were only going to talk to Joey, and “get him to dummy up,” not kill him. Terry thought the men were going to intimidate Joey, and didn’t realize that the men were planning to murder him. “Maybe he gave them an argument,” says one of the mobsters, and another assures Terry that Joey has been “giving the boss a lot of arguments lately.” Terry looks guiltily towards Joey;'s building, and the mobsters walk away, chuckling to themselves about Joey’s death. Before leaving, one of them offers to buy Terry a drink, but Terry turns him down.
We suddenly see the police and a small group of people standing around Joey’s body. A police officer speaks to Joey’s father, explaining that he either fell off the roof or was pushed. A woman says, “He was the only longshoreman that had the guts to talk to those crime investigators.” Joey’s father is distrustful of the officer and won’t tell him anything, walking away in a huff when the policeman asks him for more information. A dockworker approaches Joey’s father and says, “I’ve worked on the docks my whole life and there’s one thing I’ve learned: you don’t ask no questions and you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna end up like that,” nodding at Joey’s body. A priest finishes saying a prayer over Joey’s body, then helps a woman crouched next to the body to her feet. Her name is Edie, and she is upset about Joey’s death, asking the priest who would have wanted to kill Joey. As people cover the body with newspapers, Edie runs towards them and pulls the newspaper off, despondent. When the priest tries to comfort her, she exclaims, “Father, my brother is dead and you talk about time and faith! My brother was the best kid in the neighborhood and everybody said so.” The priest assures her that he will be at the church if she ever needs him, but she is inconsolable and angry.
Terry goes into Johnny Friendly’s Bar, where a number of men are watching television. Others are gambling at a table as a man in a fedora speaks to the bar owner, Johnny Friendly. The man in the fedora tells Johnny about some possible business he could do the following day. Evidently, Johnny has mob ties and deals in corruption, and he pushes the man in the fedora away, frustratedly turning off the television, on which a boxing match is being shown. “There’s nobody tough anymore!” Johnny exclaims to the whole bar, before greeting Terry, affectionately calling him “slugger” and play-fighting with him. Johnny suddenly asks where “Morgan…that big banker of mine is,” and Morgan suddenly walks up behind him, smiling. Suddenly, the banker gets in an argument with a man wearing a fedora, as Johnny washes his hands and laughs about the ensuing conflict. As Johnny speaks to more men at the bar, it becomes clear that he has ultimate control of the goings-on at the waterfront, in large part because of his connection to the mob. A man hands Johnny a wad of cash, which Johnny asks Terry to count.
Terry hesitates, but Johnny insists that he should count in order to develop his mind. Johnny then reminisces to another patron at the bar about a time when Terry was a great boxer. When Terry loses count of the bills, Johnny laughs affectionately at Terry’s simple-mindedness and asks him why he never got an education like his brother Charley, who sits next to him and counts the cash. The man in the fedora says that Terry only ever got an education in boxing, and Terry gets angry at him, standing as though he is going to start fighting him. Terry’s brother, Charley, holds him back. When Johnny asks Charley what is wrong with Terry, Charley tells him that he is feeling sore about Joey’s death, sarcastically referring to the ways that his brother has gotten “soft.” Johnny then launches into a tirade about the fact that his mother raised ten children on a watchman’s pension, and that he worked his way up from nothing to his current job as a union boss. He brags to Terry that they have the “fattest piers and the fattest harbor in the world.” Another man agrees with Johnny, that Joey was going to talk to the police and had threatened to ruin their entire business, thus trying to explain to Terry that he shouldn’t feel bad about Joey’s death.
Terry is silent as Johnny explains that Joey was planning to go to the Crime Commission and report the corruption, which would ruin their whole business. Terry tells him that he thinks he should have been told that Joey would be killed, before Johnny gets in a scuffle with a man in the bar over some money. “Go back to Greenpoint, you don’t work here no more,” Johnny tells the man. He then gives Terry some money, which he calls “a present from your Uncle Johnny.” Before Terry leaves, his brother Charley calls to him, and reminds him that Johnny is “a real friend.” Terry agrees and walks out. When he leaves, Johnny gathers the men around the pool table where he distributes stacks of cash.
We hear the sound of a steamship as the scene shifts to a rooftop, where a young boy runs towards Terry, who is sitting near a ledge overlooking the waterfront. The boy tells Terry he was planning to feed the pigeons in the nearby coop, but Terry insists that he was up early and didn’t mind doing it himself. They stand and look at the pigeons, Terry envying the birds’ simple lives. He leaves the pigeon coop as the scene shifts down to the docks where we see dockworkers assembling. Terry walks by a group of men who are discussing Joey. They bemoan the fact that Joey died, but agree that he “didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.” Joey’s father walks through the group of men, and a number of them greet him and urge him to go home as a way of giving him their condolences. When Joey’s father says that he has to work in order to pay for the funeral, one of the men jokes sarcastically that “Johnny Friendly, that great labor leader” will pay for it. Just as the man makes the joke, two mobsters walk up and threaten the jokester. When they walk away, Joey’s father hands the jokester Joey’s old windbreaker which he gratefully accepts.
Elsewhere, the priest from the previous evening approaches the docks. Terry stands in a group of dockworkers when a man approaches the group and asks if anyone knows Terry Malloy. The men lie and say they do not and the man begins to move on, before recognizing Terry in the group and asking him if he was once a boxer. Terry says he was, and the man shows him his identification, which shows that he’s with the Waterfront Crime Commission. Terry denies knowing anything about waterfront corruption or crime, but the man insists that there’s a rumor that Terry was one of the last people to see Joey before he was killed. Terry bristles under questioning, even though the two officers insist that they aren’t accusing him of anything. When it becomes evident that they aren’t going to get any information out of Terry, they leave. He complains about their invasive questioning to his fellow dockworkers. Nearby, the man named J.P. seeks to force two dockworkers into taking out loans, which they accept angrily.
One of the dockworkers points out Edie approaching the dock nearby, and the men assemble in a crowd for work. The priest spots Edie and walks over to her. She apologizes for yelling at him the previous evening, and he questions her about whether she respects him. They share a warm moment as a man blows a whistle, assembling the dockworkers. An announcer calls off dockworkers’ names, Terry first, and the men set off to work. The priest tells Edie that he is determined to leave the confines of the church and come down to the docks more often, in order to work on behalf of the dockworkers. When the man making all the announcements announces that they will be unloading bananas once again, the jokester, whose name is Dugan, laments that they never get any shipments of Irish whiskey. When only a certain number of men get picked to work that day, the remaining men grow angry about the lack of work and start a violent mob. The announcer throws the remaining work tags into the air, and the group runs to grab tags. Two mobsters watch from the side, laughing at the chaos, as the men continue to fight over the tags.
Watching the angry mob, Edie suddenly runs towards the mob, but the priest holds her back. She eventually runs towards the group in order to get a tag for her father, but has to fight over it with Terry, who laughs as she struggles to get the tag from him. She slaps him and he just laughs, but when another worker tells Terry that she is Joey’s sister, Terry stops and gives her the tag. She delivers the tag to her father who takes it and urges her to get back to “the Sisters.” Mr. Doyle then scolds the priest for allowing his daughter to show up at the docks, and storms away. The priest asks the remaining workers who didn’t get tags what they will do, and they tell him about the disappointing plight of a dockworker who never gets to work. A mobster thug tries to break up the meeting, but stops short when he sees the priest, apologizing for his coarse behavior. When the men begin to disperse, the priest asks them why they just accept the lack of work, and why they don’t take it up with their union, but the men just smirk at each other. The priest insists that unions don’t let their workers go home without work, but one of the men assures him, “The waterfront’s tougher, Father, like it ain’t part of America.”
Another man asks the priest if he knows how a “trigger local works,” and when the priest says he doesn’t, explains that it’s when someone makes a motion in a union meeting but it gets undermined because of corrupt interference. They inform him that ever since Johnny Friendly became the union leader, no one can speak up in meetings; “name one place where it’s safe to even talk without getting clobbered,” another says. The priest simply informs him that they would be safe to air their grievances at the church, in the basement. Dugan is skeptical, insisting that the priest is opening his church up to violent retaliation, but the priest simply asks for a cigarette.
The scene shifts to the men unloading imported goods. Terry sits on a pile of sacks onboard, when he is interrupted by his brother, Charley, who tells him he should work. Terry insists that he has finished his work, when Charley tells him that Johnny and he have a special task for him. They want Terry to go to the secret meeting at the church and tell them who attends. Terry doesn’t want to do it, telling him that it would just be “stooling,” but Charley clarifies that “stooling is when you rat on your friends,” and that Terry ought to do what Johnny wants him to do without even thinking about it.
The plot of the film is dramatic from the start. Within the first five minutes of the film, a murder occurs, signaling to the viewer that the scrappy and difficult world of the longshoremen of Hoboken, New Jersey is filled with danger and sorrowful realities. Honest workmen share neighborhoods with remorseless gangsters, and anyone is a potential target. The world of the film is gritty, working class, and dangerous, and director Elia Kazan wastes no time in establishing this. Joey Doyle was, in his sister’s estimation, “the best kid in the neighborhood and everybody said so.” However, that designation cannot save him from the corrupt dynamics of the neighborhood itself. From the start, the viewer is shown that this is not a sugar-coated or glamorized world—no Hollywood fantasy here—but a realistic and tough existence. The neighborhood is a dark and crooked place, one in which innocent people are betrayed and bad things happen to good people.
Terry is quickly established as such a good man. While he had made a deal with the mobsters to have the two men on the roof give Joey a talking to, maybe intimidate him a little bit, he did not anticipate that they would kill him. His shock and upset at seeing Joey killed distinguishes him from the cynical and apparently unfeeling mobsters. While they are content to kill anyone who crosses them, Terry is upset by the unnecessary death, and embarks on a journey to redeem himself, having been complicit in such a horrible crime. Terry is a good man in a tawdry world, a man trying to do his best, but not completely immune to the corruption that surrounds him. In the world of On the Waterfront it is difficult to cultivate a conscience, especially as a man trying to get by, but despite Terry’s association with some unsavory characters, he ultimately seeks to do the right thing.
Director Elia Kazan creates a dramatic atmosphere from the start of the film, one that is as complicated as the social structures that the film depicts, filled with both lightness and darkness in equal measure. The docks themselves are dark and foggy, and the streets are just as dark. Blacks and whites are highly contrasted in the photography, and varying degrees of brightness highlight the themes of the film, the interplay between corruption and purity. When Terry calls up to Joey, we cannot even see Joey’s face, nor can we see the identities of the two intimidating silhouettes standing on the roof waiting to kill Joey. Later, in the bar, the lighting is dim and the air is smoke-filled. We see Johnny greet Terry from the opposite side of a large pool table, a light hanging down over it and illuminating it from above. The photography reflects the complex social dynamics at play in the world of the film, underscoring Terry’s predicament, pulled between corruption and redemption.
Leonard Bernstein’s score is very dramatic and reflects the tensions of the narrative. As soon as the credits roll, a somber and reflective French horn line plays. Slowly, a flute joins in, then more instruments are introduced, until the soundscape is flooded with instruments. Later, the score becomes even more jazzy and intense, reflecting the place and time and underscoring the tension of Joey’s death. Through just the music alone the viewer is transported to a dangerous and rough-around-the-edges Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1950s. The jazziness of the score reflects the urban environment, the characters’ proximity to mid-century Manhattan, and also creates a sense of tension and drama. This score is the only original score that Bernstein—a famous composer—ever wrote for a movie, but it is notable for its dramatic point of view and the ways that it complements the treacherous world of the film.
For all the corruption and double dealing of the neighborhood, the men who are at the head of things feel completely justified if they have to resort to corruption now and again, because of a strong desire to self-improve. In particular, Johnny Friendly narrates this struggle of the corruptible longshoreman when he describes the fact that he was raised on nothing by a mother of ten children. Johnny takes immense pride in the fact that he was able to pull himself up from poverty and make something of himself, and if that means he has to game the system a little bit to provide for himself and his friends, he has no qualms about it. The scene in the bar, in which Johnny monologues about his upbringing and extols the virtues of his work, shows just righteous Johnny feels, in spite of his being a corrupt businessman. Johnny is depicted as believing that what he is doing is right, because of the struggle of growing up in poverty.