On the Waterfront

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On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Elia Kazan
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Written by Budd Schulberg
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Cinematography Boris Kaufman
Edited by Gene Milford
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • July 28, 1954 (1954-07-28)
Running time
108 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $910,000
Box office $9.6 million

On the Waterfront is a 1954 American crime drama film with elements of film noir. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. It stars Marlon Brando and features Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and, in her film debut, Eva Marie Saint. The soundtrack score was composed by Leonard Bernstein. It is based on Crime on the Waterfront, a series of articles published in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson that won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The film focuses on union violence and corruption amongst longshoremen while detailing widespread corruption, extortion, and racketeering on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey.

On the Waterfront was a critical and commercial success and received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan. In 1997 it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth-greatest American movie of all time and in AFI's 2007 list it was ranked 19th. It is Bernstein's only original film score not adapted from a stage production with songs.

In 1989, On the Waterfront was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.


Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) gloats about his iron-fisted control of the waterfront. The police and the Waterfront Crime Commission know that Friendly is behind a number of murders, but witnesses play "D and D" ("deaf and dumb"), accepting their subservient position rather than risking the danger and shame of informing.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker whose brother Charley "The Gent" (Rod Steiger) is Friendly's right-hand man. Some years earlier, Terry had been a promising boxer, until Friendly had Charley instruct him to deliberately lose a fight that he could have won, so that Friendly could win money betting against him.

Terry meets and is smitten by Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner). She has shamed "waterfront priest" Father Barry (Karl Malden) into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Terry is used to coax Joey, a popular dockworker, into an ambush, preventing him from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry assumed that Friendly's enforcers were only going to "lean" on Joey in an effort to pressure him to avoid talking, and is surprised when Joey is killed. Although Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey's death, and despite Father Barry's impassioned "sermon on the docks" reminding the longshoremen that Christ walks among them and that every murder is a Calvary, Terry is nevertheless willing to remain "D and D".

Soon both Edie and Father Barry urge Terry to testify. Another dockworker, Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify after Father Barry's promise of unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.

As Terry, tormented by his awakening conscience, increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry with a good job and finally threatens Terry by holding a gun against him, but recognizes that he has failed to sway Terry, who places the blame for his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. In what has become an iconic scene, Terry reminds Charley that had it not been for the fixed fight, Terry's career would have bloomed. "I coulda' been a contender," laments Terry to his brother, "Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let's face it." Charley gives Terry the gun and advises him to run. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered, his body hanged in an alley as bait to get at Terry. Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry obstructs that course of action, telling Terry that violence is pointless because as long as Johnny is in charge, the law will always be on his side, and finally convinces Terry to fight Friendly by testifying.

After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Edie tries persuading him to leave the waterfront with her, but he nonetheless shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry openly confronts Friendly, calling him out and proclaiming that he is proud of what he did.

Finally the confrontation develops into a vicious brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly's thugs gang up on Terry and nearly beat him to death. The dockworkers, who witnessed the confrontation, declare their support for Terry and refuse to work unless Terry is working too and push Friendly into the river. Finally, the badly wounded Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other longshoremen. A soaking wet and face-scarred Friendly, now left with nothing, swears revenge on all the workers, but his threats fall on deaf ears as they enter the garage and the door closes behind them.


Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy with Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle


Screenplay and political context[edit]

The film is widely considered to be Elia Kazan's answer to those who criticized him for identifying eight (former) Communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. One of his critics included his friend and collaborator, the noted playwright Arthur Miller. Miller had written screenplay dealing with corruption on the New York waterfront called "The Hook". Kazan had agreed to direct it, and in 1951 they met with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures about making the picture. Cohn agreed in principle to make "The Hook", but his minions were troubled by the portrayal of corrupt union officials. When Cohn asked that the antagonists of the script be changed to Communists, Miller refused. Cohn sent Miller a letter telling him it was interesting that he had resisted Columbia's desire to make the movie "pro-American". Kazan asked Miller to re-write the script, but he declined due to his disenchantment with Kazan's friendly testimony before the HUAC. Budd Schulberg, a fellow HUAC informer, was then asked to rewrite the script. Kazan and Schulberg then turned to Darryl F. Zanuck. When they met with Zanuck, he started talking about widescreen Technicolor pictures. Zanuck eventually came clean and said he didn't like a single thing about the script, stating "Who's going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?" This led Kazan and Schulberg to meet with independent producer Sam Spiegel who set up a deal with Columbia. Spiegel was insistent on Schulberg delivering a perfect screenplay and harassed the writer constantly with changes and suggestions. One night, his wife awoke to find Budd shaving at three-thirty in the morning. She asked him what the hell he was doing, to which he replied, "I'm driving to New York...to kill Sam Spiegel." In an early draft, the Terry Malloy character was not an ex-pug dockworker but a cynical investigative reporter, as well as an older, divorced man.


According to Richard Schickel in his biography of Kazan, Frank Sinatra had "a handshake deal"--but no formally-signed contract--to play Terry Malloy after Marlon Brando's original refusal to play the role. Brando refused the role because he was disgusted. Sinatra actually attended one wardrobe fitting to prepare his costumes for the film. But Kazan still favoured Brando for the role, partially because Brando's casting in the film would assure a larger budget for the picture. Kazan was actually contacted by Brando's agent, Jay Kanter, to assure the director of the agent's continuing efforts to persuade the actor to perform in the film. Kazan in the meantime enlisted actor Karl Malden--whom Kazan considered more suited to a career as a director than a career as an actor--to direct and film a screen test of a "more Brando-like" actor as Terry Malloy, in an effort to persuade Spiegel that "an actor like Marlon Brando" could perform the Terry Malloy role more forcefully than Frank Sinatra. To that end, Malden filmed a screen test of Actor Studio members Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward performing the love scene between Terry and Edie. Finally persuaded of the point by the Newman/Woodward screen test, Spiegel agreed to reconsider Brando for the role, and shortly afterward Brando was persuaded by Kanter to reconsider his refusal. Within a week, Brando signed a contract to perform in the film. At that point, a furious Sinatra demanded to be cast in the role of Father Barry, the waterfront priest. It was left to Spiegel to break the news to Sinatra that Malden had already been signed for that role.

Lee J. Cobb was given the part of Johnny Friendly. Friendly was based on International Longshoremen's Association boss Michael Clemente (Friendly also has aspects of former Murder Inc. head Albert Anastasia, who was a top enforcer for the crime family that ran the Hoboken docks, the Luciano - later Genovese - family). In 1979, Clemente and other members of the Genovese family were indicted for corruption and racketeering on the New York waterfront.

The part of Edie Doyle was offered to Grace Kelly, who turned it down, preferring to make Rear Window, instead. In Kazan's autobiography "A Life", Kazan says that the choice of an actress to play Edie Doyle was narrowed down to Elizabeth Montgomery and Eva Marie Saint. Although Montgomery was fine in her screen test, there was something well-bred about her that Kazan thought would not be becoming for Edie, who was raised on the waterfront in Hoboken, NJ. He gave the part to Saint.

The role of Terry's older brother Charley was originally offered to Lawrence Tierney, who asked for too much money, so the role went to Rod Steiger. Despite playing Terry's older brother, Steiger was one year younger than Brando. On the Waterfront was filmed over 36 days on location in various places in Hoboken, New Jersey, including the docks, workers' slum dwellings, bars, littered alleys, and rooftops. Furthermore, some of the labor boss's goons in the film—Abe Simon as Barney, Tony Galento as Truck, and Tami Mauriello as Tullio—were actual former professional heavyweight boxers.

Terry Malloy's (Brando's) fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken Docks and suffered a degree of ostracism for his deed. DeVincenzo sued and settled, many years after, with Columbia Pictures over the appropriation of what he considered his story. DeVincenzo claimed to have recounted his story to screenwriter Budd Schulberg during a month-long session of waterfront barroom meetings. Schulberg attended DeVincenzo's waterfront commission testimony every day during the hearing.

Karl Malden's character, Father Barry, was based on the real-life "waterfront priest" Father John M. Corridan, S.J., a Jesuit priest, graduate of Regis High School who operated a Roman Catholic labor school on the west side of Manhattan. Father Corridan was interviewed extensively by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the foreword to a biography of Father Corridan, Waterfront Priest, by Allen Raymond. The church used for the exterior scenes in the film was the historic Our Lady of Grace in Hoboken, built in 1874, while the interiors were shot at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also in Hoboken, at 400 Hudson Street.[1]

Political context[edit]

The film is widely considered to be Kazan's answer to those who criticized him for identifying eight (former) Communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. Kazan's critics included his friend and collaborator, the noted playwright Arthur Miller, who had written the original screenplay—titled The Hook—for the film that would become On the Waterfront. Miller was replaced by Budd Schulberg, also a witness before HUAC.[2]

Budd Schulberg later published a novel simply titled Waterfront that was much closer to his original screenplay than the version released on screen. Among several differences is that Terry Malloy is brutally murdered.


Upon its release, the film received positive reviews from critics and was a commercial success, earning an estimated $4.2 million at the North American box office in 1954.[3] In his July 29, 1954, review, New York Times critic A. H. Weiler called the film "an uncommonly powerful, exciting, and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals."[4]

In 1989, the film was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

It is also on the Vatican's list of 45 greatest films, compiled in 1995.[5]

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 55 reviews and gave the film a score of 100%, with an average rating of 9.1 out of 10.[6]


Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy and Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle in the film's trailer
Karl Malden as Father Barry with Eva Marie Saint.

Academy Awards

On the Waterfront received twelve Academy Awards nominations in ten categories and won in eight of the categories.[7]

Award Result Winner
Best Motion Picture Won Sam Spiegel, producer
Best Director Won Elia Kazan
Best Actor Won Marlon Brando
Best Story and Screenplay Won Budd Schulberg
Best Supporting Actor Nominated Lee J. Cobb
Winner was Edmond O'BrienThe Barefoot Contessa
Best Supporting Actor Nominated Karl Malden
Winner was Edmond O'Brien – The Barefoot Contessa
Best Supporting Actor Nominated Rod Steiger
Winner was Edmond O'Brien – The Barefoot Contessa
Best Supporting Actress Won Eva Marie Saint
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Black-and-White Won Richard Day
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) Won Boris Kaufman
Best Film Editing Won Gene Milford
Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Nominated Leonard Bernstein
Winner was Dimitri TiomkinThe High and the Mighty

After Marlon Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor, it was stolen and did not turn up until much later, when a London auction house contacted him and informed him of its whereabouts. Before that he had been using it to help hold his front door open.

American Film Institute recognition

Home media[edit]

The first home video release of the film was in 1984, on VHS and Beta. The first DVD version was released in 2001. Among the special features is the featurette "Contender: Mastering the Method," a video photo gallery, an interview with Elia Kazan, an audio commentary, filmographies, production notes, and theatrical trailers. The film has been added to the Criterion Collection.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Alleman, Richard. The Movie Lover's Guide to New York. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. ISBN 0060960809, p.10-11
  2. ^ Haas, Geneveive (November 21, 2006). "Dartmouth acquires Budd Schulberg '36 papers". Dartmouth News. Retrieved January 6, 2007. 
  3. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety (January 5, 1955)
  4. ^ Weiler, A. H. "Movie Review: On the Waterfront" New York Times (July 29, 1954)
  5. ^ "Vatican Best Films List". USCCB. Retrieved March 7, 2010. 
  6. ^ "On the Waterfront". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved January 1, 2014. 
  7. ^ "On the Waterfront". New York Times. Retrieved December 21, 2008. 


  • Raymond, Allen, Waterfront Priest (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1955); forward by On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg

Further reading[edit]

  • Rapf, Joanna E. (2003). On the Waterfront. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-79400-5. 

External links[edit]