On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Summary and Analysis of Part 4: Betraying Johnny


As a steam whistle blows, Terry confesses his complicity in Joey’s murder to Edie, who listens in shock. We can barely hear what he says over the blare of the whistle as Edie looks horrified and distraught, covering her face. Terry begs her to believe him, but Edie runs from him, overwhelmed by the news. Father Barry watches as Edie runs from Terry, lighting a cigarette and looking anxious. The scene shifts to the rooftop, where one of the men from the Crime Commission approaches the boys who look after the pigeon coops. The boys run and warn Terry that the man is there and Terry asks them whether they would turn someone in if they knew that he had murdered someone. One of the boys looks at him skeptically and tells him he would never turn someone over to the cops.

Terry runs over to greet the man from the Crime Commission, who sits on a ledge removing his shoe. Terry asks him what he’s looking for and the man tells him that he wants to be able to tell “the waterfront story the way people deserve to hear it.” He then asks Terry if he was once a boxer, remembering a particular fight that Terry lost to a man named Wilson. Terry is defensive, insisting that he let his opponent win. “Why didn’t you finish him off?” the man asks him, and Terry informs him that he didn’t finish him off because he was doing “a favor for a couple of pals.” This intrigues the man, who realizes that the match was rigged, as Terry assures him that he could have won that night and starts to tell him that the bet was placed against him by his own brother, but catches himself before he says too much. The man then asks him more specific questions about the fight with Wilson, which Terry readily answers. Terry demonstrates how he fought the match, assuring the man that “when those guys want to win a bet, there’s nothing they won’t stop at,” and the man nods knowingly.

The scene shifts and we see a group of mobsters gathered together to discuss Terry, his alleged affair with Edie, and whether or not he will spill about the corruption to the police. Charley defends his brother, but Johnny wants to know how they can prevent Terry from giving testimony. “He’s a good kid and you know that,” Charley says, growing impatient and emotional about his brother’s wellbeing. Charley argues that Edie and Doyle have manipulated Terry, but that he’s not disloyal, but Johnny doesn’t believe it. “All I wanna know is is he D&D or is he a canary,” Johnny says, puffing on a cigar, but Charley can't give him an answer. Johnny instructs Charley to take Terry out for a drive and “straighten him out” and if that doesn’t work, to turn Terry over to “Jerry G.” Charley grows more upset, sensing the danger his brother is in, and fights Johnny’s decision. The men argue, and Charley eventually agrees to betray his own brother.

Intense music plays as Charley leaves the room and walks up the dock. Terry and Charley get in the car together, Terry telling Charley that he’s glad to see him and wants to talk. Charley confronts Terry about the fact that he’s been given a subpoena, hinting that the mobsters want Terry to have more stakes on the inside of the corrupt operation and not so many ties to the outside. Terry insists that all he wants is a steady job, but Charley tries to convince him to have some more ambition and get more involved with Johnny’s operation. Terry is unconvinced, so Charley explains that there’s a dock loader position opening up that pays much better than being a dockworker and requires less work, and that Terry could have it if he wants it. The job sounds appealing to Terry for a moment—400 a week in exchange for not saying anything to the police—but he decides that he cannot accept it.

Charley becomes distraught, realizing that his brother is actually considering testifying against Johnny and the others. Terry remains strong, insisting that he could have been better than a crooked dockworker, that he could have been a great boxer, but that it was taken away from him by Johnny and his corruption, and that he hasn’t made up his mind about whether he will testify against them. “Well make up your mind before we get to 437 River Street,” says Charley, revealing that Terry will be killed if he chooses to rat out the union. Terry suddenly realizes that the car is taking him to his possible death, as Charley pulls out a pistol and urges him to take the job as a dockloader and keep his mouth shut. Terry speaks softly to Charley, and convinces him to lower the pistol. After a moment of silence, Charley begins to reminisce about Terry’s boxing career—“When you were 168 pounds, you were beautiful. You could have been another Billy Conn.” When Charley tries to place the blame for Terry’s failure as a boxer on someone else, Terry calls him on it, reminding him that it was him who urged Terry to lose fights, for the sake of winning bets. “You was my brother, Charley,” he says, “You should have looked out for me a little bit.”

“You don’t understand, I could have had class, I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody,” says Terry, realizing the extent of his brother’s betrayal. Feeling remorseful, Charley finally says that he’ll tell Johnny that he couldn’t find Terry, but that it is unlikely that Johnny will believe him. He then hands Terry his pistol, telling him that he’s going to need it. Charley tells the driver to pull over and Terry jumps out. When Charley tells the driver to take him to the garden, the driver—evidently one of Johnny’s spies—takes an unexpected turn into Jerry G’s place. A mobster comes out the door, and the camera pans up to a man in a window above.

The scene shifts to the Doyles' house. Edie is in a nightgown, when suddenly she is interrupted by Terry banging on the door. “Stay away from me!” she yells, locking the door, but Terry continues to knock. She gets into her bed as Terry busts down the door and insists on talking to her. She yells at him, “I don’t want you to do anything. You let your conscience tell you what to do,” and the mention of the word “conscience” only seems to frustrate him more. “But Edie, you love me,” he tells her, to which she responds, “I didn’t say I didn’t love you, I said stay away from me.” He embraces her they kiss, falling into one another’s arms.

Their kissing is interrupted by the sound of a man yelling up to them. “Hey Terry, your brother’s down here, he wants to see you!” one of the men yells. Terry goes to the window, but cannot see what is happening. He tells Edie that he thinks Charley is in trouble, and she urges him to be careful as he goes down to confront Johnny’s men. From the window, Edie calls to Terry, watching him go. She puts on a coat and climbs down the fire escape, following Terry. Outside, Edie runs into a neighbor who warns her, “That’s the same way they called Andy the night I lost him,” and tells Edie to be careful. Edie rushes down an alleyway and calls to Terry. As she runs towards him, a truck comes barreling down the alleyway after them, threatening to hit them.

Quickly, Terry punches his hand through a glass window in order to open a nearby door, which he does just in time and the couple run into the hiding spot. They wait in the entryway until the truck has driven by, then go out into the night hesitantly, Terry leading the way. As they round the corner, Terry sees the body of Charley hanging up against the wall. They have killed his brother. Terry pulls his brother’s body off the wall, as Edie watches. She pleads with Terry to take her away from the danger, somewhere where they can live in peace, but Terry is determined to seek vengeance. Pulling out the pistol that Charley gave him, Terry promises his dead brother, “I’m going to take it out of their skulls.” As Edie urges Terry not to seek vengeance, he instructs her to call Father Barry and alert him to Charley’s death and wait with the body until he arrives. Crying, Terry walks down the alley holding the pistol, on his way to avenge his brother’s murder.


It is in this section that we see Edie and Terry’s relationship compromised by the revelation that Terry was complicit in Joey’s death. While the film is largely centered around the crime and corruption down at the docks, it is also very much a romance. As a result, it follows some of the structure of a typical romance, in which the protagonist falls in love (boy meets girl), loses their lover (boy loses girl), then is reunited with them (boy gets back together with girl). Father Barry encourages Terry to come clean about his involvement in Joey’s murder, which Terry does, hoping for the best. The news comes as a shock to Edie, who is horrified that she has fallen in love with someone involved in the murder of her brother.

Again, the film puts the viewer at a distance from Terry and Edie’s relationship, just as it has in previous moments of their coming together. As they stand beside the water and Terry tells Edie the bad news about his complicity in her brother’s death, a loud steam whistle overwhelms their conversation. His confession is hidden from our ears, and we do not know what either is saying to one another in this moment of high drama. Even in conflict, the couple has the privilege of privacy. However, it is quite clear from their expressions and Edie’s look of betrayal that the couple is facing a stumbling block. While we cannot hear their voices over the din of the harbor, director Elia Kazan frames their emotional and expressive faces in close-up, showcasing their emotional journey and moment of betrayed trust.

Later too, when they make amends, the viewer is positioned at a distance by the camera. After Edie erupts in tears and Terry goes to comfort her, in a forceful embrace, he does so around the corner of a doorframe, and for a moment we can’t see him kissing her. Their moment of reconciliation is personal and out of view, and the viewer is left simply to wait in the other room for them. After a moment, the camera shifts to show them in close-up, but even then, we are too close to see their kiss clearly, and can only perceive the proximity of their heads. While many old movies are notable for their perfectly framed embraces and straightforward shots, On the Waterfront takes many photographic liberties, which only enriches the subtlety and authenticity of the storytelling.

Both Marlon Brando as Terry and Eva Marie Saint as Edie deliver incredibly realistic and affecting performances in On the Waterfront. The complications of their lives and situations stand in contrast with their undeniable connection to one another. This contrast creates a disarming rawness and electric emotionality. Indeed, director Elia Kazan was perhaps best known for his founding of the Actors Studio, a workshop that specialized in training actors in “the Method” in order to connect their performances to their own personal experience for markedly authentic results. Marlon Brando’s career was defined by his star-making debut in an earlier collaboration with Kazan on the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, first on Broadway and then in a film version. Saint and Brando’s performances in this film are emblematic of Kazan’s particular school of acting, and each project their own fervent credibility throughout On the Waterfront, and particularly in the scene in which Terry goes to Edie’s house to make amends. Both actors won Academy Awards for their performances.

Not only does Terry face conflict with Edie in this section of the film, but he also confronts a more irreconcilable rift with his brother, Charley. When Charley is forced to give Terry “a talking to,” and threaten him to join Johnny’s team in the fight against corruption, he tries to appeal to Terry’s sense of ambition and greed, offering him a higher level job at the dock. In spite of the offer, and in spite of the fact that Charley is his own brother, Terry cannot accept it, and confronts Charley about his crooked alliance with Johnny. More particularly, he addresses how Charley’s alliance affected his boxing career, and by extension his chances in life, recalling a particular instance in which Charley urged him to lose a fight for one of Johnny’s bets, and uttering one of the most famous lines in American film history: “I could have had class, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody.” Instead of supporting Terry’s talent and allowing him to ascend the ranks of professional boxing, Charley chose to stand by Johnny, an almost unforgivable betrayal in Terry’s eyes.