On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Summary and Analysis of Part 3: Terry's Confession


Edie rushes out of the crowded bar. There is a wedding taking place, and suddenly a fight breaks out, preventing Edie from getting out. She goes back towards the room she was in and runs into Terry, who offers to take her out an alternate exit. As gentle jazz music begins to play and wedding guests rush out of the bar in front of them, Edie puts her hands over her face and begins to weep. When Terry asks her what’s wrong, she wipes her eyes and comments on the fact that the music playing in the bar is pretty. She watches the wedding guests dance from the doorway and Terry offers her a stick of gum. “If I had my tuxedo I’d ask you to dance,” Terry says. Then he takes Edie’s hands and they begin to dance along to the music.

We see the dancing couples in the bar from above through streamers hanging off of a light fixture as the music plays. The scene shifts to later in the evening, as livelier music plays and Edie and Terry dance jauntily along with the jig-like music. They are having a wonderful time, laughing and dancing with joy. As they come to a stop, Edie falls into Terry’s arms and exclaims, “I feel like I’ve been floating.” Terry begins to kiss Edie just as the lights on the bar go on and the music stops. A mobster comes up to Terry and tells him that the boss wants to see him. “Something’s gone wrong. He’s plenty hot,” the mobster says. Against the mobster’s advice, Terry tells him that he has to bring Edie home first. Edie looks at Terry and asks him who the mobster was. “I don’t know. Some mug,” he tells her. She presses him more to tell her who the man was, but Terry insists that she is only endangering herself by trying to figure out who killed Joey.

A man from the Crime Commission approaches Terry and gives him a subpoena to come to the courthouse on Friday morning. When the man from the Crime Commission leaves, Terry crumples up the paper, insisting that he won’t tell the police anything. Edie confronts Terry about her suspicions that Johnny Friendly had something to do with Joey’s murder, and Terry begins to walk away. Edie only becomes more insistent, saying that she knows the truth, that Terry is mixed up in a corrupt circle that is responsible for killing her brother. Again Terry urges her to mind her own business, saying, “Quit worrying about the truth all the time. Worry about yourself.” Edie is upset by her realization that she can no longer trust Terry, and says, “No wonder everybody calls you a bum.” Even though Terry pleads with her to understand his perspective, Edie becomes more and more upset, eventually running out of the bar. Terry watches her go, distraught.

The scene shifts to an empty street at night, and we hear Terry whistling as he walks. A car screeches to a halt beside him; it is Johnny, who comes out of the car and wants to talk. Johnny taunts Terry about how stupidly he is behaving, and when Terry wants to know what he means, Johnny expresses his disappointment that Terry doesn’t have more to report about the church meeting. When Terry insists that nothing happened at the church meeting, Johnny becomes more impatient, informing Terry that Dugan went to the Crime Commission following the church meeting and revealed the corruption of the union. When Terry isn’t upset about the development, Johnny becomes impatient and accuses him of “goofing off.” Charley then yells at Terry about the fact that he has been hanging out with Edie, Joey’s sister, calling it an “unhealthy relationship.” Johnny threatens Terry that if he doesn’t stop seeing Edie, they’ll both be killed, before confirming with Charley that they know Edie’s address. Johnny insists that they have to get revenge on Dugan, and leaves.

The following day, workers assemble at the docks. Johnny makes a signal to someone on a ship, who nods in agreement. Terry watches as the communication takes place, worried about Dugan’s fate. The scene shifts to Dugan unloading boxes of Irish whiskey, the import he has been hoping for for weeks. A man yells down to Dugan not to steal any whiskey, as the boxes are raised up to the deck. When Terry comes over and asks to talk to Dugan, Dugan grows suspicious that Terry is on Johnny’s side, pushing him away. Terry looks worried as the men raise another bundle of boxes up to the deck. Suddenly, a man up above nods to another and they send the bundle toppling back down below, and a number of boxes fall onto Dugan, killing him instantly.

Later, Father Barry gathers the dockworkers. He explains that he promised Dugan that he would stand with him if he stood up to the mob, and tells the men that Dugan was killed, “unless it was an accident, like Big Mac says.” We see Big Mac watching the proceedings as Father Barry speaks out on the recent deaths, calling Joey Doyle and Dugan’s murders “crucifixions.” As Father Barry speaks, a man throws rotten fruit down at him, but he continues to speak out against the recent violence. A man named Tillio throws a piece of fruit at the priest, and Terry tells him not to. Father Barry continues to speak calmly, telling the men that Jesus is watching over what is happening to them. Another man throws a can, and Mr. Doyle threatens him. “What does Christ think of the easy money boys who do none of the work and take all of the gravy?” Father Barry yells, and Tillio yells at him to stop talking, but Terry punches Tillio in the face.

Father Barry continues, railing against the corruption of the union leaders, and assuring the workers that Jesus is always with them, even while they are victimized by corruption. “What they did to Joey and what they did to Dugan, they’re doing to you,” he tells them. Before he finishes, Barry reminds them that only they have the power to change their circumstances. The men get back to work. Edie, who has been there the whole time, approaches Terry, as a dockworker hands her Joey’s jacket, telling her that Dugan would have wanted her to have it. Terry walks away from her as she clutches her dead brother’s jacket. Father Barry is lifted up to the deck in the crane, and as he rises takes a cigarette from a dockworker. Johnny watches him, taking off his hat.

The scene shifts and we see Edie on the roof looking for Terry. She finds him and gives him Joey’s jacket, because his is falling apart. When Edie points out that there are a number of pigeons nearby, Terry tells her they are nervous because there was a hawk around earlier. Edie embraces him and he picks up her head and kisses her as dramatic music plays. The scene shifts to the church, and Terry approaches Father Barry, trying to tell him something. Barry dismisses him, saying, “I don’t want to hear your confession. I’ll dig it out for myself and I’ll use it where it’ll do the most good,” and urging Terry to go to confession. Terry will not take no for an answer, however, and follows Father Barry out of the church into the fog.

Outside, Terry confronts Father Barry, telling him that he set Joey up to be killed. This gets Father Barry’s attention, and he invites Terry to walk with him and tell him the whole story. The two men walk together, and Terry details how he was coerced into participating in Joey’s murder, that he had no idea that Johnny would actually kill Joey. He confides in Father Barry that he tried to tell Edie the other night, but couldn’t, saying, “she’s the first nice thing that ever happened to me.” When Father Barry asks Terry whether he is going to tell Edie and about his subpoena from the Commission, Terry tells him he doesn’t know. When Father Barry urges Terry to do the right thing, Terry tells him that it’s difficult because he would be betraying Johnny as well as his own brother, Charley. This makes no difference to Barry, who insists that Terry needs to think about his other “brothers,” his fellow dockworkers. Barry begins to tell Terry what he ought to do, but stops himself, deciding that Terry has to follow his own conscience in order to do the right thing. “Conscience, that stuff can drive you nuts,” Terry responds, and Father Barry begins to walk away. Beckoning Terry over to a fence, Father Barry points out that Edie is walking towards them to have a meeting with him, and encourages Terry to confess his part in Joey’s murder. Reluctantly, Terry agrees and thanks Father Barry, before running down the hill to meet up with Edie. Father Barry looks out at the waterfront and observes the couple talking to one another as a foghorn blows.


In this section of the film, we see Edie and Terry’s romance continue to blossom. While Terry is a coarse, physical man described as a “bum” by most of his associates, Edie is a good girl: well-dressed, kind-hearted and well-mannered. The chemistry between the seemingly mismatched pair, however, only deepens in this section of the film. Indeed, they bring out positive qualities in one another. Terry’s love for Edie is notable because of how tender it makes him. While he is usually rough around the edges, his affection for Edie causes him to become more caring and affectionate, looking after her and offering her a stick of gum, asking to walk her home, and dancing with her for hours. Likewise, Edie comes out of her shell when she’s around Terry, and she begins to let her guard down and feel as though she is really participating in life, rather than holing up in a religious school.

The couple’s intimacy and their moments of coming together are shot in unique ways. Oftentimes, their physical connection is either shot from far away, or the view is obstructed or obscured in dark lighting. When Edie and Terry begin to become physically intimate at the bar, we see the couple embrace from the other end of the hallway. It is as though the camera is spying on them, unable to get too close to the intimacy that they share. This has the effect of letting us feel as though the connection being made is truly private and intimate. Later, when Edie finds Terry on the roof, the couple kiss, and again the viewer feels a separation from the couple. While the camera stays close to the lovers, the screen is too dark for us to make out the kiss itself. We know they are kissing, but we cannot see it.

Terry’s split alliances only get more complicated in this section of the film. While he certainly sees the ways that Johnny Friendly is not a fair businessman, he cannot bring himself to act to get justice for Joey. He thinks for himself and he has a good heart, but he subscribes to the logic of the dockworkers, that it is better to look after oneself than go in search of the truth. Dugan’s death serves as a reminder that those who are disobedient and attempt to sell out Johnny Friendly are punished. Dugan’s death presents a complicated moral situation—while Big Mac’s murder of Dugan is undoubtedly more reason to distrust and resent Johnny Friendly and the mob, it is also all the more reason to fear them and to keep one’s mouth shut.

Complicating Terry’s ethical situation even further is his explicit alliance with Johnny Friendly—a father figure—and his biological brother, Charley. Even though he knows what the right thing is, he is prevented from doing it by his allegiance to these men, who act as though they care about him, even if they are just greedy and looking out for themselves. Terry feels an alliance with Charley because they are brothers, and he looks up to Johnny as someone who has taken care of him and Charley since they were orphans. However, Terry is in denial about the fact that Johnny and Charley have never truly looked out for his best interests, preventing him from becoming the great prizefighter he might have been.

Father Barry becomes more impassioned in this section of the film, urging the men to take control of their situation and fight the corruption on the waterfront. One of his central arguments is on the behalf of the human soul. In railing against the corrupt money-making of the mobsters at the waterfront, Barry makes a point of reminding the lowly dockworkers that Jesus is always with them, and that he will judge them much more kindly than he will their corrupt overseers. According to Barry, the human soul is far more valuable than anything else, and he urges that God will be the final judge. Then, when Terry confesses to him about his part in Joey’s death, Barry urges him to speak up. When Terry says, “If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel,” Father Barry retorts, “And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?” Here, Father Barry makes the case that the honesty of a man’s soul and his duty to his own conscience is worth more than anything else. The film suggests that speaking up on behalf of the truth is worth more even than one’s own life.