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


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 in rentals at the North American box office in 1954.[3] In his July 29, 1954, review, New York Times critic A. H. Weiler hailed the film as a masterpiece, calling it "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. Film critic Roger Ebert lauded the film, stating that Brando and Kazan changed acting in American movies forever, and then added it to his list of The Great Movies.

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.



  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]