Over time Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront has become recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time. Many site the use of method acting or Kazan’s personal affinity with the tale of a whistleblower as reasons to engage in this film. I find the most interesting analysis to be on how Kazan implemented various visual elements to add depth to the characters. This is achieved through elements of mis en scene giving a visual representation for the theme of control, that others fght to hold over Terry. Terrys brother Charley, and his boss Johnny Friendly are the two most influential characters who have charted the course of Terrys life.
In a key early scene after Joey has been murdered Terry walks into a billiard room where Johnny is meeting with his men. Johnny is fun loving and playful with Terry as he boxes with him and puts his arm around his shoulder. Johnny asks Terry to count some money for a good laugh knowing that Terry is unable to count. Later Charley explains away Terrys sullen demeanor as one to may knockouts. He addresses this to Johnny without looking at Terry who is standing right next to him while referring to him in the third person. This is reminiscent of how two parents would converse about their child.
Charley and Johnny view Terry as a child who cannot be responsible for his own well-being. It is inferred that Terry has accepted this idea of himself being incapable of having ownership over his own life because he does not object to their treatment of him. The other way Charley and Johnny exercise control on Terry is through money. In the billiard room Johnny takes a few bills and stuffs them into Terrys shirt. Johnny is buying Terrys loyalty. The next day at work Terry is paid a full days wage to sit on a sack of potatoes. Terry is comfortable letting them control his life because to him it is a better life than he would have on his own.
The hooks that Terry and the longshoreman use represent the control that Johnny and the union have over them. Two Detectives come by to ask Terry a few questions. He does not cooperate as we see the hook prominently displayed on his shoulder. Charleys influence over Terry is in serious Jeopardy as the story progresses. Terry is seriously considering informing on Johnny. Charley pulls out a gun in a desperate attempt to regain some amount of control over Terry to stop him. This gesture backfires. Terry realizes that he has been living with a false sense of freedom.
He feels like a bum because Charley and Johnny have kept him that way. The use of the Hudson River and a tall black fence are used to show the isolation of the docks from the rest of America. In multiple scenes Terry is framed with the black fence in the background cutting off the NYC skyline as a symbol of freedom, so close and yet so far away. Inside the black fence Terry is trapped by the Union, who controls the town. Opposing Charley and Johnny are two Detectives who pursue Terry as a possible witness who could bring down Johnnys corrupt Union.
While not major influences in the fght to control Terry they are a constant presence throughout the film as another ulling force on Terrys decisions. When they first encounter Terry on the docks they immediately start turning Terrys words around on him, dominating him intellectually. This is shown by the staging of the one of the cop close to the camera making nvm appear large ana Imposing compared to tne otner men on tne aocK. I ne second cop stands directly behind Terry forcing him to turn completely around to speak to him. They have surrounded Terry.
This staging mirrors the scene in the billiard hall where Charley and Johnny surround Terry on either side of him. While dancing with Edie, Terry moves her under a plant. Terry is beginning to develop strong feelings for Edie and by taking her under a plant he desires to hide away with her from all of the unpleasant pulls that are being exacted on his life. In the next two beats one of Johnnys men interrupts them and asks to talk with Terry. This is closely followed by the Detectives who deliver a subpoena to him. Terry is hopelessly caught in the desires of others.
He cannot have or do what he wants. In this instance he wanted to be alone with Edie and kiss her. It is understood that Terry must take care of his responsibilities before he can have Edie to himself. Edie is unique in her influence over Terry. While Charley, Johnny, the Detectives, and Father Barry all approach Terry with a level of forceful persuasion, Edie’s influence is much more nuanced. In the park when Edie and Terry have their first walk together we see what her role will be. Edie is calm, mature, almost motherly in her demeanor toward Terry.
This in contrasted with Terrys childlike demeanor. In this scene as he chews gum, shrugs his shoulders, evades eye contact, and can never keep his hands still. This is shown when Terry sits on a children’s swing while Edie stands rigid looking away from Terry. He desperately wants her attention but she will not give it to him. We see Edie again use her feminine influence over Terry when they sit together at a bar. Desperate to make Edie happy Terry is down on his knees pleading with Edie. His posture shows that he is willing to give Edie authority over him.
She then takes her hand and touches his face saying “l know you would help me if you could”. She has crossed the barrier of physical touch representing human affection and a caring for others. These are emotions that are foreign to Terry. He is unsure what to do with these emotions but knows that he feels better with Edie in his life. We see subtle meanings through various props that Edie uses. For instance in the park Edie drops her white glove that Terry quickly picks up. The white glove represents Edie’s pure heart. This is contrasted to the black leather gloves of Johnnys men especially Charleys black gloves.
As Terry examines and plays with the glove it is as if he is trying to understand her and what she is all about. Terry asks to see her again, and in the next scene we see Edie back at her apartment with a hairbrush and a mirror. She has let her hair down and is intentionally making herself more visually attractive before she see’s Terry again. The more attraction Terry feels for her the less influence the Union has over him as Edie’s desires will trump theirs. Throughout the movie the clothes worn by the actors are significant in understanding their emotional state. At the bar Terry and Edie sit across from each other.
Terry is wearing his two-colored flannel coat while Edie is wearing her conservative black and white dress from her catholic university. The visual relationship is striking. Edie’s clothes do not fit into the world that Terry knows. She is a strange irresistible novelty for Terry. The most important symbolic clothing of the ovie is the coat that belonged to Edie’s murdered brother Joey. The coat is first given to Kayo who is killed for talking to the police and then Edie gives it to Terry. She Is Inalcatlng to lerry tnat It Is nls turn to stand up Tor wnat Is rlgnt Just Ilke Joey ana Kayo did.
The character of Father Barry begins the film as a passive observer but quickly becomes the main instigator against Johnny and the Union. Father Barry’s authority and sense of right and wrong are seen through his religious clothing. Yet his communication is intense and inflammatory, shown in his multiple mint-sermons on injustice that he delivers to the longshoreman. As a priest Father Barry uses his skill of casting a sense of guilt onto Terry. Edie influences Terry as a caring motherly figure while Father Barry is a hard line man who uses tough love on Terry like a father would to move him to action against Johnny.
This is shown when Terry runs to talk to Father Barry after Kayos death. Father Barry will hardly listen to him and when he does he seems angry with Terry because Terry is only talk with no actions to back it up. The notion of a disappointed father is seen as Father Barry delivers his speech in the pit of a boat after Kayo was killed while working. During his weighty speech filled with guilt ridden words Father Barry uses specific boxing references like “you have the power to knock em’ off for good. ” These thinly veiled references to boxing are meant for Terry to hear.
This is confirmed at the end of his speech when Father Barry prolonging glares directly at Terry. Father Barry’s tactics prove to be effective as the next scene shows Terry trying to talk to Father Barry at his church. Father Barry is quickly moving out the door and through the park. He is dismissive of Terrys attempts to confess and he struggle to keep in frame with the priest. Father Barry only stops when Terry shares how he would atone for his sins of inaction. Father Barry tells Terry if he wants to atone for his sins he must confess his part in Joey’s murder to Edie who is walking down the street.
Terry crosses through the black fence that has been an immovable boundary until now to reach Edie. This is Terrys first step he has taken toward freedom. As Terry confesses to Edie the frame move up to reveal Father Barry up on the hill in the park looking down at them from inside the fence. This shows Father Barrys importance as the main orchestrator in the fight to bring Justice to the waterfront. Terry is pulled from every which direction over the course of the film and struggles to find his personal identity outside of how others see him.
This is supported by Terrys passive childlike characteristics that are demonstrated through the method style of acting used for Terrys character. He is constantly distracted in every scene he is in. He rarely commits his full attention to one person let alone one act of movement. In the bar scene while talking to Edie, Terry is constantly bouncing his eyes around the room, he chews gum, shrugs, dismisses, and cuts short all adult reflections on his childhood and the loss of his dad. He Just shrugs, looks away and says you know, never mind that stuff. This represents Terrys inability to face life as an adult, still eluding truth like a child would. Key visual representations for Terry are the pigeons that he takes care of on the roof. Terry is envious of the pigeon’s life of eating, flying, and sleeping. Their life is simple as they live in the cage and are taken care of by Terry. What we discover is that Terry is in fact like the pigeons. He lives, eats, sleeps, and does what others ask him too. He lives within the black fence that symbolizes Terrys birdcage where Jonnny an a tne Unlon wlll ake care 0T nlm at tne expense 0T nls own autonomy.
Having to choose between Charley and Johnny or Edie, Father Barry, and the Detectives is an existential crisis for Terry. With the oversight of his brother, Terry has never had to formulate his own thoughts and beliefs about the world. He has been able to stay passive. This indecision and passivity is shown through two key elements. The first being the steam from the sewers that fills the park that Terry and Edie walk through. This is the first time that Terry has been exposed to new thoughts on life thanks to Edie. This is confusing to Terry as represented by the thick steam hat he must navigate through.
The other element is the coat Terry wears throughout the film up until the ending. It is a light and dark squared flannel Jacket. This can be seen as a visual representation of Terry embodying both opposing beliefs yet unable to stand for only one side. Many of these various mis en scene elements established throughout the film are brought back for the climax of the story where Terry develops into a fully formed adult, in control of his own life. After Terry testifies against Johnny and returns to his roof he finds all of his Pigeons have been killed. This shows the person that Terry used to be has died as well.
He has fulfilled his destiny as a pigeon, meaning as a whistleblower and now must accept his new role as a responsible adult in society. Edie enters the birdcage and kneels next to Terry. She offers to take care of him for the rest of his life if he will leave the city with her. The way the shoot is framed inside the birdcage we see that Edie still wants to take care of Terry like he cared for his pigeons. But that Terry is gone. With a hook hanging by his head we see that it is time for Terry to step up and prove that he is his own man and not a bum.
Terry leaves Edie and the birdcage showing that Terry is now in control of his own decisions. At the docks the hook that represented Johnnys control over Terry and the other longshoreman is used to show Terrys newfound courage as he throws the hook at Johnny door coaxing him to come and fight. This is a dramatic statement that Johnny no longer holds rein over Terrys actions either. Another visual motif that has changed for the climax is Terrys coat. He no longer wears his black and white flannel coat choosing to wear the coat worn by Joey Doyle and Kayo Duggan. The coat is solid lack informing us that Terry has chosen a side.
He will bring Justice against Johnny for the other longshoreman on the waterfront. This coat has also represented the brave whistleblowers that dared to stand up to Johnny and paid for their courage with their lives. Terry is the embodiment of all those who have died under Johnnys tyrannical Union. Terry is focused and is moving toward a singular goal. The staging and movement in this last scene also contrasts everything that lead up to this moment. Terrys facial expressions are no longer that of an passive teenager as he stares at Big Mac with stone cold eyes. He no longer fidgets and chews gum.
He has transitioned from passive to active as he takes charge of his life. As Terry walks toward Johnnys office all of the longshoreman follow behind him. They view Terry as a potential leader because he takes a stand and fghts for the rest of them. Terry is now a man of action and this demands their respect. After Johnnys goons beat Terry near death he must find a way to stand on his own two feet and walk to the entrance of the docks. All of the men watch as Terry stumbles down the dock. Even though he is unsteady on his feet, falling down once, the men do not aid erry as ne stands In Tront 0T tne entrance. erry nas acnl and he has done it without assistance. nls personal vlctory On the Waterfront is a moralistic tale of right and wrong. It asks the viewers to put themselves in Terrys shoes and decide if they would do the same. The film is at it’s best in the progression of Terry as a character. It is as Terry confronts his childlike nature through the efforts of Edie and Father Barry that he is then able to choose to take ownership over his life. The transition from passive to active is a relatable one and few films tell it as well as On The Waterfront.