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On the Waterfront

Horizon Pictures, distributed by Columbia Pictures; written by Budd Schulberg, directed by Elia Kazan, 1954

American Studies Today Online
One of the most significant films in American cinema history Elioa Kazan's On the Waterfront was not only a commentary on its times, but reflected the director's own crise de conscience as he turned against his former colleagues and testified to the House UnAmerican Activities hearings. This article originally appeared in History Today, and has been adapted by the author.
Written June 2001. Posted 17th October 2001
by Brian Neve of the University of Bath

The waterfront and organised crime
Why did Kazan name names to HUAC?
The film opens to critical acclaim
The film as a commentary on its times
You've seen the film - now read the books


On the Waterfront

Read more about On the Waterfront in the Internet Movie database.

A pantheon of fifties American film-making might include John Ford's The Searchers or Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, while the top box office successes of the decade included White Christmas, Cinerama Holiday and The Ten Commandments. Yet if one film of that era is required to illustrate the unique power of the cinema to resonate with its time, and become an emblem for it, On the Waterfront would be a strong contender.

While the image of Marlon Brando in the film has become an icon of 'the fifties', On the Waterfront relates most strongly to the post-war decade that preceded its release in 1954. Context is provided by three interrelated circles of events, the first of which is the ideological and cultural conflict that dominated the late forties and early fifties, and which was fought out in Hollywood as well as Washington. The second concerns the changing political economy of the American film industry, and finally there is the history of the New York waterfront itself.

There are a number of reasons for the dramatic change in dominant concerns following the end of the war, not least the breaking up of the wartime alliance and the beginning of the Cold War. Out of these new responsibilities came a right wing Republican agenda which blamed successive Democratic administrations for what was seen as a reverse in America's interests. Soviet dominance in eastern Europe and its testing of an atomic bomb in 1949, together with the victory of Communist China in the same year, all served to focus attention on the new totalitarian enemy. The House Committee on Un-American Activities first explained these reverses by pointing at enemies within, most notably in their successful charges against the former State Department official Alger Hiss. The same institution also pointed a finger at Hollywood, and by the early fifties the studios were actively participating in a blacklist of writers and artists who were not fully prepared to co-operate with the FBI and the Committee.

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The one individual who came to personify the anti-communist 'investigations' in the first half of the fifties was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who did much to stoke up the flames of domestic paranoia with his repeated claims of State Department betrayal. McCarthy helped to scare liberals away from a populist stance, and to convince them of the need for elites to guide the process of democracy. The Popular Front alliance between liberals and radicals that had such a cultural impact in the late thirties and the war years was now splintered and disabled. Whittaker Chambers, the man who had accused Hiss, published his influential book Witness in 1952, and by 1954, when McCarthy's sudden decline began with his censure by the Senate, the informer - or friendly witness - had become a contemporary hero.

The blacklist was only the most important of a number of shocks to affect Hollywood in the years after the war. From their peak in 1946 attendances began a rapid decline that was to last until the late fifties, while anti-trust action began a process by which the major studios divested themselves of their holdings of theatres. A brief wave of social problem films came to an end as producers increasingly avoided social themes as likely to attract the attention of politicians or American Legion pickets. The doubling of GNP in the post-war decade both changed the agenda and provided alternatives to cinema-going, the most important of which in the 1950s was the fast growing television industry. Defensive studio bosses turned away from social realism in search of audiences, and new techniques such as 3-D and Cinemascope were seized upon. More gradual, but more effective, were the success of epics and musicals (now mostly in colour) that underscored the cinema's advantage over the small screen, and a slow recognition of the importance of the young as a key niche for movie marketing. With its social theme and location shooting, and in particular its close observation of wrking class life, On the Waterfront was far from typical of its time.

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The waterfront and organised crime

The final historical arena which the film draws on is that of the New York and New Jersey waterfront in the late forties and early fifties. There was widespread interest in various forms of corruption involving the International Longshoreman's Association, which was eventually expelled from the American Federation of Labour in 1954, New York politicians, and the stevedore and shipping companies. Rank and file discontent with the system, and with the ILA leadership, grew in the period, as violence, loansharking, and corrupt hiring practices - including the 'shape up' - were publicised by journalists. Also pressing for reform were the so called 'waterfront priests', notably Father John Corridan, who had campaigned on behalf of rebel longshoremen since arriving at the Xavier Labour School in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York in 1946.

Hearings conducted by Senator Estes Kefauver into organised crime paid particular attention to the New York waterfront, and they attracted national attention to the issue when they were televised in 1951. In response to public concern Governor Dewey of New York established a Waterfront Crime Commission, which began its own hearings in late 1952; its report, issued the next year, called for changes, including an end to the shape up. (Despite a number of reforms the ILA narrowly survived as the main bargaining agent, winning a ballot for recognition against a rival AFL union in 1953).

This was the particular social problem that Elia Kazan turned his attention to in the early fifties, first with Arthur Miller, and then with Budd Schulberg. Kazan, an Anatolian Greek who had been brought to New York at the age of four, had come of age in the political and cultural movements of the Depression. He first gained acting recognition as the 'proletarian thunderbolt' in Clifford Odets' agit-prop drama Waiting for Lefty; his hostility towards what he saw as the privileges of middle class America also led him to membership of the American Communist Party for nearly two years from 1934. An eager disciple of the leaders of the Group Theatre, Kazan later applied his knowledge of and commitment to Stanislavsky's theories to the Actors Studio, which he co-founded in 1947.

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Why did Kazan name names to HUAC?

In the late forties Kazan became a successful two coast director, working on both large budget social problem films and smaller budget semi-documentary films at Twentieth Century Fox, while directing the key work of Arthur Miller (All my Sons and Death of a Salesman) and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire) on Broadway. His cinematic ambitions increased as he planned a series of more independent productions, including the film version of 'Streetcar', and scripts with John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata) and Miller.

 Arthur Miller's script, The Hook, was based on a pre-war case of rank and file action against six Brooklyn ILA locals which had been long been controlled by notorious criminals, including members of the Anastasia family. When Kazan and Miller proposed the script to Columbia Pictures in 1951 there were political objections which may have contributed to Miller's withdrawal - to Kazan unnecessary - from the project. Meanwhile the novelist Budd Schulberg, who had also been a Communist party member in the thirties (1937-1940), had begun researching his own waterfront script, in particular by talking extensively to Father Corridan and a number of rebel longshoremen including Tony Mike deVincenzo, who had testified to the New York Crime Commission and declared himself 'proud to be a rat'. When Kazan contacted Schulberg the writer worked up a script which was offered to and rejected by all the major studios; only with the support of the independent producer Sam Spiegel, whose previous films included The African Queen (1951), did the production proceed, with filming beginning on location in Hoboken in the bitter winter of 1953.

 Before the film went ahead both Kazan and Schulberg had been involved in appearances before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had begun a second series of hearings in 1951. The Committee, working with FBI information, called before it individuals who had a Communist Party record, and some fellow-travellers. In the late forties witnesses who had refused to answer questions on the basis of the first amendment to the Constitution (the 'Hollywood Ten') had served periods of up to a year in prison. In the new hearings witnesses who declined to answer questions about their political pasts needed to plead the fifth amendment, but such action led to their being blacklisted in the film, television and radio industries. Kazan, who had previously stated that he would refuse to testify, 'named names' before the Committee in April 1952, to the shock of his friends and admirers. (He named those fellow members of a Communist Party cell in the Group theatre). Budd Schulberg had similarly been a 'co-operative witness' in 1951.

 Whereas Kazan has sometimes been ambivalent about his action, Schulberg has consistently justified his testimony, arguing that he was a 'premature anti-Stalinist' and referring to the fate of Soviet writers that he had met when attending a Writers Congress in Moscow in 1934. While self-interest was clearly a key motive for Kazan's volte face - he has admitted that - there was an argument at the time that communism was an internal threat, and that secrecy served its purposes. (In addition 25,000 Americans died in Korea in the period 1951-3). At some point in the early fifties Kazan joined the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), which had been formed in 1951 to represent the views of anti-communist liberals.

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The film opens to critical acclaim

The completed film opened in New York in July 1954 to popular and critical acclaim; it was to receive eight Oscars, including that for Best Picture, at the 1955 Academy Awards ceremony. On the Waterfront presents the labour conflict and corruption of the time in terms of the experiences of one docker, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) who begins to have doubts about his life from the moment he is forced by his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and by Johnny Friendy (Lee J. Cobb), the leading officials of the union local, to set up someone to be murdered. The man had been talking to the Crime Commission, and with this opening scene the film introduces the notion that such testimony is considered to be informing, 'ratting on your friends' by the men and particularly the union bosses.

 What is presented as Molloy's moral reawakening is encouraged first by Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the man killed, and then by Father Barry (Karl Malden), the 'waterfront priest' character. Terry's dilemma remains the pivot of the film, in part because of the emphasis of the script, which itself fits Hollywood's own preference for individual heroes, but also because of the power and originality of Brando's performance. Only with the murder of Charley, following a taxi cab journey in which he fails to get his brother to 'dummy up' (ie not to testify to the commission), does the tension drop. Now Terry's testimony to the commission can be seen as revenge for his brother's death, and after Terry gives evidence against the union leaders he goes down to the dock to take his revenge personally on Johnny Friendly.

 Some writers have seen the film as little more than a vehicle for Schulberg and Kazan to justify their own 'informing', and have stressed the role of the Catholic priest in manipulating Terry's 'conscience'. Yet the film is more complex and genuinely powerful than this view would imply. There is first the location shooting in mid-winter Hoboken, using real longshoremen as extras as well as a number of authentic boxing 'heavies'. Furthermore there is a strong sense, at least in the first hour, of ordinary life, captured in a way that recalls the style of Italian neo-realism as much as traditional Hollywood. On the tenement roof, where Terry looks after his own pigeons, and those of the murdered Joey Doyle, we get a strong sense of his private life, and of a vulnerability and sensitivity behind the macho posturing of the world of work.

 In addition Terry is given a psychological depth which helps explain his behaviour. In the famous taxi-cab scene Terry Malloy complains to his brother that he 'could've been a contender' and could have had class, had not Charley and Johnny ended his chances of a title shot by forcing him to throw fights for 'the short-end money'. The Crime investigator, visiting Terry on his roof, also reminds him of his boxing career, and his sense of unfulfilled talent and personal ambition. Brando's anguished performance is perhaps the most striking example of a Method approach that related the motivations in the script to real memories and resentments in the actor's life, and therefore brought these feelings to the screen. Many of the cast were recruited from the Actors Studio, and a number of other scenes, including the long take of Terry and Edie Doyle first talking in a playground, are classics of naturalistic acting style and emotional realism.

 Brando's suggestion of a mix of toughness and sensitivity, and his dramatic rebellion against the prevailing norms of his peers and elders arguably connects the film with those that starred that other Method icon of the mid-fifties, James Dean. Kazan directed Dean in East of Eden, and Kazan's friend Nicholas Ray - out of a similar thirties milieu of social theatre and radical politics - directed Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. (Brando, 30 in 1954, was fifteen or more years younger than the top male box-office stars of the fifties, including John Wayne, Gary Cooper and James Stewart). While the Kazan-Brando film looks backward to the thirties in its working class locale, the Ray-Dean film is more characteristic of the new emphasis of Hollywood on the problems that affluence was bringing the middle classes.

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The film as a commentary on its times

Hollywood's new responsibilities in the war years led some to look forward to less escapist, more adult American movies. Certainly the socially conscious writers and directors who came to the film capital from the East hoped for a more decentralised process of film-making as the old authoritarian studios lost their power. Except for the most successful directors, and for a number of B pictures, such hopes were generally unrealised. Yet On the Waterfront did set a standard for a more co-operative film-making tradition based in New York; Sam Spiegel strictly organised the production but the circumstances allowed the creative personnel more autonomy than was normal under studio supervision. The film sounded different because of Leonard Bernstein's only film score, which used discordance to point up the scenes on the roof, and the understated, 'unHollywood' romance between Terry and Edie, even if it also accentuated the melodrama of the finale. Similarly the distinctive visual qualities, from day-time smoky vistas across the Hudson to striking night blacks, owed much to the cinematography of Boris Kaufman, who had worked decades earlier with Jean Vigo.

 The characters generally avoid stereotype. Karl Malden drew some of his character from the real life Catholic priest, while the Eva Marie Saint role - while also structurally important in pushing Terry towards what is defined as his public responsibility - is not the one-dimensional figure of much female imagery of the day. Her desire to investigate her brother's death is the catalyst for the action, and the observation of her emerging relationship with Terry allows her - perhaps until the final scenes - a believable independence. Terry's use of the phrase 'You go to Hell', to Father Barry, required a bending of the Production Code rules by censor Joseph Breen.

 The way Terry is shunned by the boy from his old rooftop gang, following his appearance before the Crime Commission, reflects Kazan's own experiences following his testimony. Kazan's desire to justify himself pushes him in the film to change the context of informing: Terry Malloy testifies of murder, while Kazan named fellow members of the Communist Party cell that he belonged to sixteen years before, and left acrimoniously. When Terry approaches the union shack and tells Friendly that he is 'glad what I done to you', there is clearly a sense of Kazan's feelings about the Communist Party.

 Terry's final walk to work, following his fight with Johnny Friendly, was seen by the British film director Lindsay Anderson as fascist, involving a sudden transfer of loyalty to a new leader by the watching, apathetic crowd. Although the 'walk', with its suggestions of religious symbolism, overstates the sense that there has been real change On the Waterfront, Malloy hardly behaves as a leader, while Friendly is seen shouting that he will be back, and the men are shown to be little more than cautiously admiring of Terry's exhibition of his old boxing skills.

In short, the film shows little of the collective action that was an element of the real events, concentrating as it does - characteristically, for the time - on issues of personal identity. It also only hints at the role of business in the waterfront corruption through a number of references to a mysterious waterfront tycoon. Yet there much in the portrayal, including the general sense of alienation, that does have roots in the documentary evidence.

 Rather like Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, The Crucible (1953), which Miller wrote having failed to persuade Kazan not to testify, On the Waterfront offers a metaphorical commentary on its times. In an age of references to comformity - to grey flannel minds, other directed organisation men, and even the 'pod people' of Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Brando acted out Kazan's conformity, his coming in from the cold, but created at the same time a powerful and popular image of individual rebellion.

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You've seen the film - now read the books

Anderson, Lindsay, 'The Last Sequence of "On the Waterfront", Sight & Sound, 24, 3, 1955, pp. 127-30; see also the reply by Robert Hughes, Sight & Sound, 24, 4, 1955. (An exchange on interpretations of the ending of the film).

Biskind, Peter, "The Politics of Power in 'On the Waterfront'", Film Quarterly, Fall 1975. 

Hey, Kenneth, 'Ambivalence as a Theme in 'On the Waterfront', in Peter C. Rollins, ed., Hollywood as Historian, Revised edition, 1998. (The best single survey of the film).

 Kazan, Elia, A Life, 1997

 Naremore, James, Acting in the Cinema, University of California Press, 1988. (Good on Brando's performance).

 Navasky, Victor, Naming Names, Viking, 1980. (See on the argument that the film justifies informing to the House Committee on Un-American Activities).

 Rapf, Joanna E., (ed), Handbook on 'On the Waterfront', Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

 Schulberg, Budd, 'On the Waterfront', A Screenplay, Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

 Young, Jeff (ed.), Kazan on Kazan, Faber & Faber, 1999. (Good on Kazan's directing style and approach).

 Brian neve gave a presentation on On the Waterfront in the centre's recent conference on American Classis Films. Read a report of the conference here.



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