On the Waterfront (1954)




Director:     Elia Kazan. 

Starring:     Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy),  Karl Malden (Father Barry),  Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly),  Rod Steiger (Charley 'the Gent' Malloy),  Pat Henning (Timothy J. 'Kayo' Dugan),  James Westerfield (Big Mac),  Tony Galento (Truck),  Tami Mauriello (Tullio),  John F. Hamilton ('Pop' Doyle),  Arthur Keegan (Jimmy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle),  Martin Balsam (Gillette),  Fred Gwynne (Slim). 

fighting inequality on the docks of New York City


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The corrupt union officials, led by the head man, Johnny Friendly, come up from their meeting place, a small shack set on a dock on the river itself.  Johnny tells Slugger (Terry Malloy) to get going.  Terry walks over to an apartment building and calls up for Joey.  He tells Joe Doyle that he has one of his pigeons.  Joe says he will meet Terry on the roof.  On the roof are two muscle men ready to kill Joey.   Terry releases the pigeon and the bird flies to the coop on the roof.  Terry walks over to his brother, Charley Malloy, one of the corrupt officials. 

Soon Joey is thrown off the roof to his death.  One of the toughs working with the union says that Joe won't be singing to the Waterfront Crime Commission now.   Terry says:  "I thought they was gonna talk to him."  Talk to him to get him to "dummy up".  Terry is upset because he says Joey was a good fellow. 

Joey's sister Edie hovers over the body of her brother.  Father Barry comes over to her.  Pop Doyle, the father, is also there.  Pop tells a woman trying to tell the policeman why Doyle was killed to shut up. One of the dock workers there says:  "You don't answer no questions, unless you want to wind up like that."   Edie is really mad, saying to Father:  "My brother was the best kid in the neighborhood, and everybody said so. . . .  I want to know who killed my brother." 

The union officials are watching a televised fight in the bar.  Johnny Friendly says he likes Slugger.  He says to Charley:  "Hey, remember the night he took Farella at Saint Nicks, Charley?"   Johnny brags:  "We got the fattest piers and the fattest harbor in the world.  Everything moves in and out, we take our cut."   The top man learns that one of his men skinned some money from him.  He roughs up the man, takes all his money and slaps him around again.  Then he fires him.  Johnny then assigns Terry to the easiest job -- working in the loft. 

Terry has pigeons in a coop on top of his building.  A couple of young guys help Terry with his birds.  They are in a group called the Golden Warriors, a group that Terry started. 

Early the next morning the dock workers gather in front of Big Mac to see who gets to work today.  Pop Doyle gives his late son's coat to Dugan to wear.  Dugan in turn gives his old coat to a worker named Joe.  Father Barry is there.  Two cops with the Waterfront Crime Commission are there too looking for Terry.  They explain that the Commission is investigating the underworld infiltration of the longshore union.  They find him but Terry won't cooperate.  He says:  "I don't know nothing."  Edie comes down to the area.  Father Barry walks over to her to talk. 

The men waiting for Big Mac, who decides who can work can work, start getting very impatient and Big Mac gets scared.  So he throws the tags he has in his hand behind the men.  The men scramble, push and pull to get one of those tags that will allow them work.  Pop Doyle is trying to get a tag, but Terry pulls him away and snatches it up.  Edie comes after Terry grabbing at him and screaming for him to give her the tag.  Terry thinks it's funny until another worker tells him that this is Joey Doyle's sister.  So Terry gives the tag to her, saying:  "Well, it's been nice wrestling with you."  Edie runs over and gives the tag to her father.  Father takes it, but tells Edie to get out of there. 

The men start going home.  Father Barry asks them:  "Is this all you do, just take it like this?"  The men are resigned to the situation.  And they are very skeptical about their union, which they correctly see as corrupt.  Father Barry offers his church as a place for the men to meet to talk about their work issues. 

Charley goes to the loft to check on Terry.  Terry is just reading a comic book.  Charley has a job for his brother.  He says the priest and that Doyle girl are sponsoring a meeting of union men in the church and the union wants Terry to provide the names and numbers of all the union men that participate.  Charley tells Terry:  "Johnny wants a favor."  Terry really doesn't want to do it, but knows he's got to take the assignment. 

Father Barry tells the workers at the meeting that the working conditions are bad;  they're bad because the mob does the hiring; and the only way to break the mob is to stop letting them get away with murder.  His first question for the men is who killed Joey Doyle?  Nobody will say anything.  Dugan sees Terry sitting in the back and asks what's he doing there?  Father Barry says that he is only asking who killed Joey.  He asks Dugan for help.  Dugan says the policy is for the men to play deaf and dumb. 

The meeting is just about to break up when a brick is thrown through one of the church windows.  Toughs working for the union are waiting outside with clubs to beat the meeting attendees.  Terry grabs Edie and takes her out a safe way.  Most of the men are beaten by the toughs.  Father Barry helps a beaten Dugen asking him if he still thinks that deaf and dumb is the best way.   Dugan asks Father Barry if he sticks his neck out, will Father Barry be willing to go all the way with him?   Father replies:  "Down the line. . . . You stand up and I'll stand up with you." 

Edie and Terry make it out to the park away from the church.  A down and out man asks them for a dime.  He starts to say that Terry was there that night when . . . Terry chases the man away.  He then tells Edie not to pay that bum any attention for the man is just a juice-head who is a falling-down drunk.  Edie says she has to go home.  Terry asks her some questions about herself and finds out that Edie has lived a rather sheltered life.  Right now she is in a Catholic college run by the Sisters of St. Anne in Tarrytown, Westchester County.  She wants to be a teacher.  Terry also finds out that he and she both know each other from when they were younger.  Edie says that Terry was in trouble in school all the time.  Terry asks if they will see each other again?  She asks what for?  He says I don't know.  Neither does she.  Terry walks her home. 

Pop Doyle tells Edie that she is going back to St. Anne's.  He's mad about her walking arm in arm with Terry Malloy.  Edie says Terry is always trying to act tough, but there's something in his eyes.  Dad scoffs saying that as a kid she was always dragging into the house some animal she felt sorry for.  He says he and her mother worked very hard to give Edie a good education so she could become something decent.  She, however, tells her father:  "But, Pop, I've seen things that I know are so wrong.  How can I go back to school and keep my mind on things that are just in books?"  Edie says she's staying and going to find out who killed Joey. 

Edie goes up on the roof of her apartment building.  She looks at Joey's old pigeon coop.  Edie then goes over to talk to Terry, who shows her his pigeon coop.  Terry then asks Edie to go out with him to have a glass of beer.  At the saloon Terry reveals that his father was killed, never mind how, and he and Charley were put in a children's home.  And he was a pro fighter for awhile.  Edie is so nice, that Terry says:  "Boy, what a fruitcake you are."    Terry says his philosophy is do it to him before he does it to you.  Edie says she never met anyone like Terry before. 

Terry asks Edie what's Father Barry's racket?  Edie says the Father doesn't have any racket.  Terry says everyone has a racket.  Edie gets upset thinking about Joey.  She asks Terry for help.  He tells her:  "Edie, I'd like to help.  I'd like to help, but there's nothing I can do."   Edie leaves a little bit later, but gets caught up in a wedding celebration in the saloon.  Terry rescues her and they join in the dancing.  One of Johnny Friendly's men tells Terry that Johnny wants him.  Terry insists on taking the girl home first.  He tells Edie:  "Edie, you gotta quit trying to find out about Joey.  It ain't safe."  While talking with Edie, Terry gets served with a subpoena by the Waterfront Crime Commission fellows.  Edie tells Terry that she is sure Johnny Friendly and Charley had her brother killed.  Then she says that Terry can't tell her about it because he's probably a part of it.  She asks him to tell her the truth.  He won't.  She says she should have known he wouldn't talk, because Johnny Friendly still owns him.  Edie adds that's why everyone calls him a bum.  Terry says he's just trying to protect her.  What more does she want from him?   Edie says:   "More.  Much, much more." 

Terry walks home.  Charley  and Johnny Friendly roll up in a car.  Johnny is mad at Terry because Dugan sang to the crime commission.  Terry was supposed to keep an eye on Dugan and the rest of them.  Johnny says Terry has been goofing off.  Charley tells his brother that he shouldn't be hanging around this Edie Doyle.  Johnny says they got to silence Dugan.  He then transfers Terry from the loft to down in the hold.  Charley tells Terry:  "Wise up!"

A scheme is worked out to kill Dugan on the job.  In the hold Dugan helps load cases of Irish whiskey onto the platform.  The crane picks up the cargo of cases, but at the top the crane operator fixes it so the cases of whisky fall onto Dugan, killing him.  Father Barry comes down into the hold for Dugan.  He is mad and denounces the killing, comparing it to a crucifixion.  Some of the toughs throw things at the priest.  Terry tells one tough to let the priest finish talking.   Barry is hit with an empty beer can on the forehead.  Father Barry keeps on talking.  Terry knocks out a tough who tries to stop Barry.  Father Barry finishes and leaves.  Edie was one of those listening to the Father's speech.  She goes over to Terry, but Terry just walks away from her. 

That night Edie goes up on the roof to find Terry.  They kiss. 

The next day Terry wants to talk to Father Barry, but the priest says he doesn't want to hear his confession, so he can just confess to Father Gregory.  Terry is a bit stunned, but then he runs after the Barry and stops him.  Barry pulls away from him until Terry admits that he's the one who set up Doyle for the knock-off.  So they walk and talk.  Terry reiterates that he never thought Doyle would be killed.  He also says he has tried to tell Edie, but she won't listen to him.  He adds:   "I wanted to tell her she's the first nice thing that ever happened to me."  The priest tells Terry that Edie is walking here to speak to him.  Now is his chance to tell Edie everything.  So Terry goes to see Edie.  They talk, but as soon as Terry says what he did, Edie starts crying and runs away from him. 

One of the fellows from the Waterfront Crime Commission comes to see Terry again.  Two of the Golden Warriors run to tell Terry the guy is here.  Terry walks over to talk to him.  The fellow remembers the boxing match with Wilson and says Wilson really dumped Terry.  This makes Terry mad and he tells the guy that he held that bum up for half a round.  He also says that the fight was fixed.  If it hadn't been fixed, he would have won and gotten a chance to fight for the title.  

Word gets back to Johnny that Terry was talking to one of the guys from the crime commission.  This puts Charley on the hot seat.  The boss asks him about Terry:  "All I want to know is, is he D and D or is he a canary?"  Charley says he doesn't know.  Johnny says take Terry for a drive and straighten him out.  If he won't cooperate, continue driving to the place they have been using and Gerry G will take care of him.  Charley protests but it soon becomes obvious that he has to take Terry on that drive. 

On the drive Charley starts offering Terry up to $400 dollars per week on an easy job at the docks.  The big brother refers to Terry as a "rubber-lipped ex-tanker who's walking on his heels".  Terry gets upset and says:  "I could have been a lot better!"  Charley begs Terry to take the job.  He even pulls a small pistol on him.  Terry realizes what's up and shakes his head, saying a slow "Wow."  Charley says that Terry could have been another Billy Conn, if it wasn't for that skunk manager Terry had.  Terry replies:  "It wasn't him, Charley.  It was you.  Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and said:  "Kid this ain't your night.  We're going for the price on Wilson.'  You remember that?  'This ain't your night.'  My night!  I could have taken Wilson apart.  So what happens?  He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get?  A one-way ticket to Paloookaville.  You was my brother, Charley.  You should have looked out for me a little bit.  You should have taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money."

Charley replies:  "I had some bets down for you.  You saw some money."

Terry says:   "You don't understand!  I could have had class!  I could have been a contender.  I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am  --  let's face it.  (pause) It was you, Charley." 

Charley now says he will tell Johnny that he couldn't find his brother.  He even gives Terry the pistol, he's going to need it.  He then tells the driver to stop the car.  Terry gets out and walks away.  Charley tells the driver to take him to the Garden.  But the driver instead drives him right to the place the gang has been "using".   

Terry goes to see Edie, but she won't let him in.  So Terry busts the door open.  He tells Edie that she loves him.  He forces himself on her and kisses her.  She melts and starts kissing him back.  Just then they hear someone shout up from the street:   "Hey, Terry, your brother's down here.  He wants to see you."  Edie is very scared and tells Terry to be careful.   She gets more frightened and comes down the fire escape.  A neighbor widow tells Edie that was the same way they called her husband down the night she lost him.  She also tells Edie to be careful. 

Edie runs down the street shouting for Terry.  Terry turns around and sees her running toward him.  He also sees a truck coming down the street speeding and knows someone is going to try to kill him and Edie.  He grabs Edie's hand and they run down the street.  Terry sees a door, breaks the window and opens it, allowing he and Edie to get off the street.  When Terry watches the truck go by he sees his brother hanging dead on a building wall held there at the end of a grabbling hook.  He and Edie go check it out.  Charley has been shot at least four times in the chest.  Terry takes his brother down and lays his body on the ground.  Terry now says he is going to get even with those guys and pulls out his pistol.  Edie begs him to come with her and they will go somewhere they can live in peace.  Terry just tells her to go get the priest and come back to watch over Charley's body. 

Little brother now goes into a tavern in search of Johnny Friendly and the guys.  Only one of the gang is there.  Terry orders a whiskey and then two more of the gang come in.  Terry has the three gang members stay put in the tavern.  Father Barry comes rushing into the place.  With him are three dock workers.  The priest asks for Terry's gun.  When Terry tells the priest to go to hell and then even repeats the phrase, the priest slugs him, knocking him off his bar stool.  Meanwhile the three gang members and the others run out of the door. 

Terry tells the pries that this is none of his business.  The priest says that if Terry really wants to fix Johnny Friendly, he must testify before the crime commission.  Terry and the priest then have a beer together.  The next morning Terry appears in the courtroom.  He gets on the stand.  The big boss who Johnny works for watches the televised proceedings.  When Terry implicates Johnny in the murder of Doyle, the boss get mad and tells his servant to shut the television off.  He tells the aide that if Johnny Friendly ever calls here, always tells him that the boss is out. 

Now Michael J. Skelly (aka Johnny Friendly) is called to take the stand. Johnny tries to pulverize Terry but the guards grab Johnny.  Terry goes home, followed by two police officers sent to protect him.  He goes into his apartment room.  Edie is there waiting for him.  Then he goes up to look at his pigeon coop.  One of the Golden Warriors, Tommy, has killed every pigeon in Terry's coop.  The kid shouts:  "A pigeon for a pigeon!" and runs away.  Edie comes up on the roof and sees what happened.  She tells Terry that they must move away from here.  He grabs his grabbling hook and starts to go down to the docks.  Edie yells at him that he is stupid and pig-headed and asks what is he trying to prove?   Terry replies:  "They always said I was a bum.  Well, I ain't a bum, Edie. . . . I'm just gonna go down there and get my rights."

Terry walks down to the docks.  Big Mac shouts that everybody works today, except for Terry.  Everybody goes inside but Terry, but the men stand around in the entrance watching to see what Terry is going to do.  Johnny is scared that he might be going to the electric chair.  He takes all the pistols away from his men and locks them in a safe.  Terry walks part way down to the union office.  He calls for Johnny to come out.  Johnny comes out to tell Terry to get out of there.  Terry shouts at him that he's nothing without his pistoleros.   He adds:  "You give it to Joey, you give it to Dugan, you give it to Charley, who was one of your own."   He then shouts that Johnny is just a "cheap, lousy, dirty, stinking mug"!  Johnny is now furious and tells Terry to "come on!"  Terry rushes at him and Johnny trips him. He then knees Johnny in the back while he's on the ground.  This gives Johnny a big advantage and he is winning the fight, but Terry turns the situation around and starts beating Johnny.  That's when Johnny's men jump in to beat Terry up.  Two thugs keep the dockworkers from coming down to help Terry. 

Father Barry arrives to ask the men what happened?  Edie tries to push past the two thugs, but they hold her back.  Johnny and his men start to leave.  The Father and Edie rush to check on Terry.  He is all bloody.  The shipyard boss comes down to tell Johnny to get his men to work right now!  But the workers just turn their backs on Johnny.  The men say that if Terry doesn't work, they don't work.  Johnny starts pushing the men to get them to go to work, but when he pushes Pop Doyle, Doyle pushes Johnny into the water.  The men laugh and scream derisions at Johnny.   

Two of the workers go to see how Terry is.  They are shocked at his appearance.  The guys say if Terry will walk in, the workers will follow him.  Father Barry encourages Terry and Terry with some assistance is able to get up on his wobbly legs.  He now starts his walk past all the workers and Johnny Friendly to the work entrance.  The big boss shouts:  "All right.  Let's go to work."  Terry goes inside.  The men follow him in. 

Johnny Friendly is left outside to shout revenge, but no one is listening to him anymore. 


Wow, what a powerful movie.  And what a marvelous portrayal of dockworker and one-time prize-fighter Terry Malloy by Marlon Brando.  Kazan the director was right when he said Brando had that great mixture of toughness and tenderness that Kazan was looking for.  He's a palooka, but he's a good soul too.  This is the story of a few beaten-down good guys, who rise to fight the bad guys on the docks of Brooklyn.  Terry Malloy gets some help from Father Barry and a beautiful girl named Edie.  In these roles Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint were great.  And what a great screenplay!  My wife was watching it with me and was a bit peeved that I kept replaying that famous scene where Terry tells his brother Charley that he could have been a contender in the world of boxing, if it weren't for Charley and his crooked associates.  I'm sorry, but that's just one great scene and there are other great ones too.  This is a must-see movie if you're a film buff or, indeed, anyone else. 

Patrick Louis Cooney,  Ph. D. 

Historical Background:

from Janet Sassi.  "Professor recounts on Jesuit's Quest to clean up corrupt NYC docks."  Inside Fordham: New across the Campus Community.  December 8, 2008.  p. 4.


between the two World Wars (1918-1941)  --  200 longshoremen "disappeared". 

1930s and 1940s  --  Bill McCormack controlled the stevedoring business for the Pennsylvania and Erie railroads (the area's largest shippers).  He also ran the union International Longshoremen's Association (ILA.  It was he who dictated the contract terms. 

The world of the docks of NYC was one of extortion, kickbacks and bribes.  And any dock worker or reformist politician trying to improve the situation often wound up dead. 

Reformist priest Phillip Carey, S.J., tried to help a splinter group of longshoremen build a new union.  Tammany Hall and the archdiocese told Father Carey that his way is not the way business is done on the docks. 

1946  -- Irish-American Jesuit reformer Father John "Pete" Corridan decided to do something about the terrible situation. He gets a reporter for the New York Sun, Malcolm Johnson, to write a series on the docks.  Later he contacted the Hollywood community. 

1948  --- first conviction ever for killing a longshoreman. 

1949-1954  --  Corridan talked with hundreds of media people about the docks. 

1949  --  Johnson's "Crime on the Waterfront" series won a Pulitzer Prize. 

1954  --   Jewish humanist Budd Schulberg wrote and produced the movie On the Waterfront.  The film won 8 Academy Awards. 

Investigations caused the demise of corrupt political leadership affecting the docks. 

But the mostly Irish dockworkers kept the ILA as their union, defeating the AFL candidates. 

Father Corridan lost his fight for a new union.  He left for a position at LeMoyne College.  Later he became a hospital chaplain.

1953-1980  --  technology improvements led to the decline of dock workers from 60,000 to just a few thousand.  James Fisher, Ph. D. agrees that Pete Corridan was the first liberation theologian.  He also was today's model for catholic interfaith, ecumenical social justice work. 

1984  -- death of Father Corridan. 


James Fisher.  2009.  On the Irish Waterfront:  The Crusader, the Jovie and the Soul of the Port of New York.  Cornell University Press.


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