On the Waterfront
Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, an ex-prizefighter is complicit in a mob murder, falls in love with the victim’s sister, and decides to testify against the crooked union boss.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) tells Joey he has one of his pigeons and will meet him on the roof. Terry tells his older brother Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger) that Joey is going on the roof. A man with a gun forces Joey to fall off the roof to his death. Terry says he thought they were going to talk to him. Police asks questions, and his mother says he was the only longshoreman who had the guts to talk to the crime investigators. Father Barry (Karl Malden) tries to console upset Edie Doyle (Eve Marie Saint), who wants to know who killed her brother. Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) collects money and gives it to Terry. Johnny says how he worked his way up, and now he runs a strong union. Charley says Jimmy (Arthur Keegan) is short, and Johnny roughs him up and fires him. Johnny tells Big Mac (James Westerfield) to put Terry up on the lift in the easy job every day. Johnny pays off his men.
Terry sits on the roof by his pigeon coop, talks to a kid, and goes to work. Pop Doyle (John F. Hamilton) gives Joey’s coat to Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning). A crime investigator asks Terry if he was a boxer. Terry says he does not know anything. Big Mac chooses who works. When men crowd him, he throws the tabs on the ground. Men scramble for them, and Terry lets Edie have one that she gives to Pop. Father Barry asks the remaining men about their union, and he offers his church for a meeting. Charley tells Terry to go and report what happens.
Father Barry starts the meeting with a few men and says they can stop the mob by not letting them get away with murder. He asks them who killed Joey Doyle. No one says anything. A man complains that Terry is there. Dugan says they are deaf and dumb. As they close the meeting with a prayer, a window is broken outside, and men rattle sticks. The men with sticks beat up the others. Terry leaves with Edie. Barry says he will stand up with bloody Dugan. A drunk beggar tells Edie that Terry was there when Joey died. Edie says she goes to a Catholic college. Terry says she looks better now. He says they could not beat an education into him. She says she would use kindness. He asks if he will see her again.
Edie goes home, and Pop gives her money to go back to St. Anne’s. She says Terry wants to see her again. She wants to stay to find out about Joey. She sees Terry on the roof. He says he started the Golden Warriors. Terry says he is taking care of Joey’s pigeons. He shows her a pigeon and says they marry for life. He asks her out for a beer. Terry says his father died, and he ran away from a children’s home and became a fighter. Charley owned him, and he did well for a while. They drink a shot before the beer. Terry says his philosophy is to do it to others first. He asks her what Father Barry’s racket is. He does not like her mentioning Joey. She does not drink her beer, and Terry helps her escape from a wedding party. He asks her to dance, and they have a good time. A tall man tells Terry the boss wants to see him. The investigator gives Terry a subpoena, and he throws it away. She asks if Johnny and Charley had Joey killed. She says Charley still owns him.
A car stops by Terry. Johnny and Charley get out, and Johnny says Dugan told the cops about their organization. Charley objects to Terry seeing Joey’s sister. Johnny says they have to get Dugan, and he says Terry will work in the hole.
Dugan and others unload boxes of whiskey. Dugan puts a bottle in his coat. Terry tries to talk to Dugan. A heavy load is spilled on Dugan, killing him. Father Barry says he promised to stand up with Dugan. He calls his death a crucifixion. Thugs throw things at him. Terry knocks one of them out. Father Barry preaches about Christ being there. Edie is given Joey’s jacket.
At night on the roof Edie gives Joey’s jacket to Terry, and he kisses her.
Terry goes to the church and tries to talk to Father Barry. He admits he set up Joey, and he wanted to tell Edie. Terry does not want to inform on his brother and Johnny, who took him to baseball games. Barry urges him to tell Edie. Terry tries to explain to her, and she runs off.
The investigator finds Terry on the roof, and Terry asks him what he wants. They talk about a fight, and Terry says he was doing a favor for his pals. At a meeting Charley says he is not sure that Terry will not talk. Johnny implies they may have to get rid of him. Johnny sends Charley to keep Terry in line. In a cab Charley offers Terry a good-paying job if he does not say anything. Terry says he has not decided yet. Charley points a gun at him, and Terry is disappointed in him. He says it was Charley that kept him from getting a shot at the boxing title. Terry says it made him a bum. Charley says he will say he could not find him, and he hands him the gun. The cab stops, and Terry gets out. The cab driver takes Charley to Johnny.
Terry knocks on Edie’s door and breaks it in. She in her slip tells him to follow his conscience and to stay away from her. He grabs her. She stops struggling, and they kiss. Someone calls Terry, and he goes to help Charley. Edie runs after Terry, and they avoid a truck. They see Charley’s body hanging from a hook. She suggests they leave and live in peace. Terry wants revenge. He tells her to stay with Charley, and he looks for Johnny in a bar. Two of his men come in and start to go, but Terry tells them to sit down. Terry’s arm is bloody. Father Barry comes in. Terry says, “Go to hell!”, and Barry slugs him. The two men slip out. The priest tells him to fight Johnny in the courtroom. Barry orders two beers.
At the hearing Mac testifies that they were robbed and lost all their records. Terry takes the oath and is questioned. Terry testifies that Johnny Friendly said he had to have Joey killed. Johnny is called and tells Terry he is through on the waterfront. Terry tells two policemen to stop following him. He finds Edie in his room. He goes on the roof, and his gang avoids him. He discovers his pigeons were killed. A kid says, “A pigeon for a pigeon.” Edie suggests they go out west. He says he is going down there to get his rights.
At the waterfront Big Mac says that everyone works; he chooses everyone except Terry. Johnny tells his men about the Sullivan law and takes their guns from them. Terry walks toward their office, and the workers follow him to watch. Terry calls Friendly, who tells him to beat it. Terry says he was ratting on himself for years. Terry says he is glad about what he did to Johnny, and they fight. Johnny calls for help, and his men beat up Terry. Father Barry and Edie arrive and ask what happened. The beat-up Johnny says they can have him. They attend to Terry. Johnny orders the men to get to work; but they refuse to work unless Terry works too. Johnny is knocked into the water, and the workers cheer. Barry asks Terry if he can walk in to work. The workers want a legitimate union. Terry can hardly stand up, but he manages to walk to the ship without help. The owner calls the men to work, and the workers follow Terry. Johnny says he will remember them. Father Barry and Edie are proud.
This realistic drama, which is based on actual incidents in 1948, exposes how some unions are controlled by gangsters who use violence against anyone who does not cooperate with them. The priest compares those who have courage to tell the truth to the crucifixion of Jesus. After three men have been sacrificed, the corrupt leaders are finally discredited. Ironically, Schulberg and Kazan had both cooperated with the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and hoped for redemption with this film. They refused to make the bad guys Communists.