On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Imagery

Through the Wire

Edie comes to the rooftop pigeon coop that belonged to her brother in order to find some clues about his death. There she finds Terry, who speaks to her kindly and gives her a tour of the coops. He shows her the pigeons from inside their cage, holding them up and telling her about their unusual lives. In this particular moment, Kazan shoots Terry from the inside of the coop and Edie on the outside, visually representing the division between the two characters. Terry is trapped within the logic of the dockworkers, unable to explicitly speak out against the corruption taking place, just like a pigeon that is kept in a cage. Edie is on the outside of the world of the waterfront, but she wants to learn more about it. The couple reaches through literal wire towards one another in order to learn more about the circumstances and themselves.

Smoke and Fog

The settings in the film are often filled with fog, which drifts into the scene from the waterfront. The visual effect of the fog serves to give the viewer a sense of place, showing the proximity to the water and the dark and gray landscape in which the characters live. The fog shows that the weather is often cloudy and unsettling, and smoke drifts into the scene from the large ocean liners that dock in Hoboken. In addition to being a strictly visual device, fog also has symbolic power, and serves to underscore the often cloudy and unclear circumstances of the plot. Terry walks with Edie through the fog after they have been at the church, and they begin to fall in love. In the midst of the cloudy and convoluted circumstances surrounding them, they find clarity and peace in one another. Then when she learns that Terry was involved in the murder of Joey, her brother, the couple's speech is drowned out by the whistles of the dock, and we see the Manhattan skyline behind them, covered in fog. The magic of the nearby metropolis is obscured by the fog of the harbor. Kazan uses fog and smoke to show the cloudy nature of the events of the film. While the film is not a mystery, it is shrouded in controversy and corruption.

Leonard Bernstein's Score

Leonard Bernstein was the most famous American classical composer at the time that On the Waterfront was released. While he had written symphonies, operettas, and musicals, this film marked his first and only foray into film score composition. The result was a dramatic, dynamic, and intense score that feels like almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. At times the music is placid and calm, at others it is intense and obtrusive, and it is a masterful sonic complement to Kazan's film. Alternately gentle and violent, Bernstein's score is an essential aesthetic element of the artful classic. Indeed, much of the music occurs in motifs in order to represent specific elements of the storytelling; there is a particular motif to represent Terry, another tender motif that plays in romantic moments between Terry and Edie, and yet another motif to represent the coercive violence of Johnny Friendly's gang.

Terry Walking In

At the end of the film, Johnny's men have brutally beaten Terry, and he lies face down on the dock, his face half in the water. He is a hero beaten down, but soon enough Father Barry and Edie arrive at his side and encourage him to go to work, in order to send a message to Johnny and to the other men that he will not back down and he will do the right thing. As we wait to see if Terry will be able to stand and walk in to work, the camera shows the serious, rough faces of the dockworkers as they silently watch from nearby to see if they have a new leader in Terry Malloy. The camera pans across their stoic faces, and we watch as Terry slowly stumbles up the ramp and towards the workplace. At one point, we see only his feet as they stumble down an aisle of dockworkers, who are watching him patiently. It is a dramatic and suspenseful scene, and Kazan heightens the moment of the fallen boxing champion—face bloodied and bruised—as he stands and marches in to work, not proudly or irreverently, but with the determined limp of a man who will not be beaten down by thugs. The image is a noble and a compelling one, and it ends the film on a triumphant note.