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 is used to coax Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), a popular dockworker, into an ambush, preventing Joey from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry assumed that Friendly's enforcers were only going to "lean" on Joey to pressure him into silence, and is surprised when Joey is killed.
Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), angry about her brother's death, shames "waterfront priest" Father Barry (Karl Malden) into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Friendly sends Terry to attend and inform on a dockworkers' meeting Father Barry holds in the church, which is broken up by Friendly's men. Terry helps Edie escape the violence, and is smitten with her. Another dockworker, Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify after Father Barry promises unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.
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 at first willing to remain "D and D", even when subpoenaed to testify. However, when Edie, unaware of Terry's role in her brother's death, begins to return Terry's feelings, Terry is tormented by his awakening conscience and confesses the circumstances of Joey's death to Father Barry and Edie. Horrified, Edie breaks up with him.
As Terry 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 blames 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 prizefighting 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. Terry flees to Edie's apartment, where she first refuses to let him in but finally admits her love for him. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered and his body hung in an alley as bait to lure Terry out to his death, but Terry and Edie both escape the attempt on Terry's life.
After finding Charley's body, Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry prevents it by blocking Terry's line of fire and convincing Terry to fight Friendly by testifying instead. Terry proceeds to give damaging testimony implicating Friendly in Joey's murder and other illegal activities, causing Friendly's mob boss to cut him off and Friendly to face indictment.
After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Terry is shunned by his former friends and by a neighborhood boy who had previously looked up to him. Refusing Edie's suggestion that they move away from the waterfront together, Terry 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. 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 witness the confrontation, show their support for Terry by refusing to work unless Terry is working too and pushing Friendly into the river. Encouraged by Father Barry and Edie, the badly injured Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other workers. A soaking wet and face-scarred Friendly, now left with nothing, swears revenge on them all, but his threats fall on deaf ears as they enter the garage and the door closes behind them.Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy
Karl Malden as Father Barry
Lee J. Cobb as Michael J. Skelly aka "Johnny Friendly"
Rod Steiger as Charley "the Gent" Malloy
Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle
Pat Henning as Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan
John F. Hamilton as 'Pop' Doyle
Ben Wagner as Joey Doyle
James Westerfield as Big Mac
Fred Gwynne as Mladen "Slim" Sekulovich
Leif Erickson as Lead Investigator for Crime Commission
Rudy Bond as Moose
Martin Balsam as Gillette, Secondary Investigator for Crime Commission (uncredited)
Katherine MacGregor as a Longshoreman's Mother (uncredited)
Pat Hingle as Bartender (uncredited)
Nehemiah Persoff as Cab Driver (uncredited)
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 Kazan's critics was his friend and collaborator, the noted playwright Arthur Miller, who had earlier written the first version of the script, originally entitled 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 rewrite the script, but he declined due to his disenchantment with Kazan's friendly testimony before the HUAC. Kazan then replaced Miller with Budd Schulberg, a fellow HUAC informer.
After rewriting the script, Schulberg and Kazan approached Darryl F. Zanuck, who eventually told them 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."
Schulberg's script went through a number of changes before reaching the screen. 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. Schulberg later published a novel entitled Waterfront that was much closer to his original screenplay than the version released on screen. Among other differences, in Schulberg's novel, Terry Malloy is brutally murdered.
Terry Malloy's fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DeVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission about activities 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.
The character of Father Barry was based on the real-life "waterfront priest" Father John M. Corridan, S.J., a Jesuit priest and graduate of Regis High School who operated a Roman Catholic labor school on the west side of Manhattan. Father Corridan was interviewed extensively by Schulberg, who also wrote the foreword to a biography of Father Corridan, Waterfront Priest by Allen Raymond.
The character of Johnny Friendly was partially based on International Longshoremen's Association boss Michael Clemente. Friendly also had 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.
According to Richard Schickel in his biography of Kazan, Marlon Brando initially refused the role of Terry Malloy, and Frank Sinatra then had "a handshake deal" — but no formally signed contract — to play the part, even attending an initial costume fitting. But Kazan still favored Brando for the role, partly because casting Brando would assure a larger budget for the picture. While Brando's agent, Jay Kanter, attempted to persuade Brando to change his mind, Kazan enlisted actor Karl Malden, whom Kazan considered more suited to a career as a director than 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 role more forcefully than Sinatra. To that end, Malden filmed a screen test of Actors Studio members Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward performing the love scene between Terry and Edie. Persuaded by the Newman/Woodward screen test, Spiegel agreed to reconsider Brando for the role, and shortly afterward Kanter convinced Brando 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.
The part of Edie Doyle was offered to Grace Kelly, who turned it down, preferring to make Rear Window instead. Kazan said in his autobiography A Life 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, New Jersey. 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.
Several of the labor boss' men in the film, including Abe Simon as Barney, Tony Galento as Truck, and Tami Mauriello as Tullio, were former professional heavyweight boxers in real life.
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. The church used for exterior scenes in the film was the historic Our Lady of Grace, built in 1874, while the interiors were shot at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul at 400 Hudson Street.
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. 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."
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 60 reviews and gave the film a score of 98%, with an average rating of 9.1 out of 10.
On the Waterfront received twelve Academy Awards nominations in ten categories and won in eight of the categories.
American Film Institute recognitionAFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #8
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:
Terry Malloy – #23 Hero
Johnny Friendly – Nominated Villain
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes:
"You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am." – #3
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – #22
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers – #36
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #19
AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Gangster film
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.
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.