Elia Kazan's connection to On The Waterfront was extremely personal. The original idea for the film was based on Kazan's friend Arthur Miller's screenplay The Hook. When the studio demanded that Miller amend his screenplay to contain a more anti-communist message and after Kazan gave 8 names during the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, Miller dropped out of the process and refused to work with Kazan again. Miller's own depiction of the life of a longshoreman, A View From The Bridge, is widely interpreted as his response to the situation.
Without the help of his friend Arthur Miller, and confronted by the dismay of his peers and colleagues who saw his actions in front of HUAC as a betrayal, Kazan made On The Waterfront. In his book, Kazan on Directing, Kazan himself is quoted as saying, "On The Waterfront was my own story; every day I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves." What resulted was an exceedingly personal film for Kazan, because it articulated not only his artistic vision, but his response to his critics. While one can watch On the Waterfront and read it as a simple, straightforward tale of union corruption, the backstory and the underlying politics are significant. Having already established himself as a formidable talent of both stage and screen with works such as A Gentleman's Agreement, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Viva Zapata!, Kazan was well-respected in his industry for his artistry and his facility working with actors. Indeed, while his politics have become an immense part of his legacy and particularly the legacy of On the Waterfront, he had employed blacklisted actors in the past when no one else would. He hired Zero Mostel for his noir Panic in the Streets in 1950 when no one else would. Of his decision to work with Mostel, Kazan said, "He [Mostel] was one of the three people whom I rescued from the "industry's" blacklist... For a long time, Zero had not been able to get work in films, but I got him in my film."
Aside from the political subtexts of On the Waterfront, it is a masterfully made film, boasting striking imagery, compelling storytelling, and powerhouse performances. Kazan was a genius at using place and perspective to enhance his narratives. Throughout, Kazan uses unique composition and gorgeous photography to show Terry Malloy's struggle and the dire circumstances of the dockworkers in Hoboken. Unusual camera angles subtly communicate the plights and emotions of the characters, Leonard Bernstein's dramatic score provides a motivic soundtrack to the drama, and the realistic performances of the actors help the viewer empathize with the gritty reality depicted on screen.