On the Waterfront
On The Waterfront
Original Poster
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Produced by: Sam Spiegel
Written by: Budd Schulberg
Starring: Marlon Brando,
Karl Malden,
Eva Marie Saint
Runtime: 108 mins.
Country: United States
Language: English
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures

On the Waterfront is a 1954 American film about mob violence and corruption among longshoremen, and it has become a standard of its kind. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and stars Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb. The film deals with social issues which paralleled the emerging organization of labor. It was based on a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson.

Plot Edit

Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about
the entire movie.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a washed-up ex-prizefighter working on the docks for the local gang boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). The death of a childhood friend, ordered by Johnny Friendly, fills him with guilt because he was involved in the murder.

Terry meets the murdered man's sister (Eva Marie Saint), and they begin a relationship. She and a local priest (Karl Malden) try to convince him to work against the mob. But Terry only turns against the mob after Johnny Friendly orders the death of his brother (Rod Steiger), a mobster himself, who had refused to kill Terry after his treachery is discovered.

Terry testifies publicly and becomes a pariah on the docks but, in the end, triumphs over Johnny Friendly after beating him in a dramatic fight on the docks.

Spoilers end here.


Role Actor
Terry Malloy Marlon Brando
Father Barry Karl Malden
Johnny Friendly Lee J. Cobb
Edie Doyle Eva Marie Saint
Charley 'the Gent' Malloy Rod Steiger
Pat Henning Timothy J. 'Kayo' Dugan

Selected quotesEdit

  • "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." - Brando as Terry Malloy. One of the most memorable film lines of all time.

Background and contextEdit

On the Waterfront was based on a 24-part series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, "Crime on the Waterfront." The series won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The stories detailed widespread corruption, extortion and racketeering on the waterfront of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In On the Waterfront, protagonist Terry Malloy's (Brando's) fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken docks and had suffered a degree of ostracization for his deed. DiVincenzo sued & settled, many years after, with Columbia Pictures over the appropriation of what he considered his story. DiVincenzo recounted his story to Schulberg during a month-long session of waterfront barroom meetings—which some claim never occurred—even though Shulberg attended Di Vincenzo's waterfront commission testimony every day during the hearing. Johnny Friendly was based on mobster Albert Anastasia, chief executioner of Murder, Inc. see discussion for reference.

Karl Malden's character of Father Barry was based on the real-life "waterfront priest" Father John M. Corridan, who operated a Roman Catholic labor school on the west side of Manhattan. Father Corridan was extensively interviewed by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who wrote the forward to a biography of Father Corridan, "Waterfront Priest" by Allen Raymond. The story was filmed in Hoboken, New Jersey, although it is a fictionalized version of events on the New York waterfront.

The film later was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Terry Malloy's line in the film, "You don't understand. I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am", was voted in a 2005 poll by the American Film Institute as the third most memorable line in cinema history [1].

The film is referred to in the song "Rattlesnakes" by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.

Awards and recognitionEdit

It was the winner of eight Oscars:

  • Best Actor - Marlon Brando
  • Best Picture - Sam Spiegel, producer
  • Best Supporting Actress - Eva Marie Saint
  • Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Black-and-White - Richard Day
  • Best Cinematography, Black-and-White - Boris Kaufman
  • Directing - Elia Kazan
  • Film Editing - Gene Milford
  • Writing, Story and Screenplay - Budd Schulberg


The film also received an additional four Oscar nominations:

  • Best Supporting Actor - Lee J. Cobb
  • Best Supporting Actor - Karl Malden
  • Best Supporting Actor - Rod Steiger
  • Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Leonard Bernstein

External links and further readingEdit

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