Category Archives: On the Waterfront

The Bird is Actually the Word

In many movies and books, you are bound to find some sort of symbols. On the Waterfront is not exception. One of the main symbols that I found interesting in this film was the birds and what they represent. In On The Waterfront, along with the narrow and dark areas and the fences, birds are a symbol of entrapment. The pigeons add to the feeling that there is no way out and that Malloy is stuck in this system forever.

These pigeons can also be seen as a symbol of the church and how the congregations flock together like the birds do. The selection of the type of bird is also not a coincidence. Pigeons are birds that are lower in the food chain and they are constantly trying to avoid the predators. On The Waterfront presents a direct comparison to the people on the docks, constantly trying to avoid the ‘predators’ as well.

Personally, I find birds as being very scary animals in general. For that reason exactly, I decided to do some investigating on birds in other movies and what they might symbolize or represent.

Although the following birds are more prominent in the films than the subtle symbolism offered by the pigeons in On the Waterfront, the idea is still the same. Something about the bird superstar is a representation of something else. There’s more to movies than the naked eye led to believe. Check it out!

But actually, read this. It’s really interesting.

Bird #1: Hedwig

Hedwig is an Owl, more specifically she is Harry Potter’s Owl. Hedwig is apparently the name of a saint, St. Hedwig. The congregation of Sisters of St. Hedwig look to educate orphans and abandoned children. Coincidence? I think not. Harry is an orphan and Hedwig basically takes care of him, much like St. Hedwig cares for orphans. Nothing in movies is a coincidence, there’s more meaning behind the little things than you would think!

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Bird #2: Owl

If you were anything like me, you grew up with Winnie the Pooh. Maybe you had a Pooh bear themed birthday? Or maybe you took the more extreme route and had a Pooh bear themed bedroom… until 7th grade… Anyways, owls are often associated with knowledge and wisdom and Owl is no different. Although he is very wise and full of advice, it is believed that he is a representation of dyslexia and/or narcissism. Despite his knowledge, he oftentimes still spells things wrong.

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Bird #3: Fawkes the Phoenix

The Phoenix in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is yet another popular bird in film. This magical bird gets old, dies, and is born again from its own ashes. How remarkable is that?! This bird serves as a symbol of rebirth, new beginnings, suffering and tolerance. I think the most prominent symbol we can associate with the phoenix is rebirth and the direct juxtaposition to Harry. After almost being killed by Voldemort, Harry has more than one near death experience. Harry goes through a sort of emotional rebirth while the phoenix goes through a physical rebirth of sorts.

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Bird #4 Kevin

Kevin is the multicolored bird from UP. Throughout the film, Kevin has lots of prominent motherly instincts and is seen as a symbol of life. Aside from the bird’s technicolor feathers, Kevin is a representation of life in general. Russell doesn’t have parents and Kevin is pretty much a figure of a ‘parent’ in his life. Also, Carl finds a spark in himself to act as a parent to Russell as well. He takes the boy under his ‘wing’ (hahahha get it? WING.) and gives him the sense of parenting he deserves in life.

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Birds in songs are also interesting to think about. “Free Bird” is by far the most ‘classic’ example I can think of. Two movies that I find as being really great utilize this famous song to convey a certain feeling. Forrest Gump and Kingsman: A Secret Service both use the world famous song by Lynyrd Skynyrd entitled “Free Bird”. Try to link these well known lyrics to the relevancy in the scenes in both movies!

“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”

“Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”

“But please don’t take it so badly, ‘cause Lord knows I’m to blame.”

“Won’t you fly high, free bird,”

Moral of the story: the bird is, in fact, the word.

The Mystery of Marlon

Before viewing Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, my only experiences with Marlon Brando, like another poster on this blog, had been limited.  I only knew his roles in two Francis Ford Coppola films: Vito Corleone in The Godfather and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  From these three characters, we see a drastic range in Brando’s psyche through his “method” acting.  Don Vito Corleone is a heavily disguised version of Brando, caked in aging makeup and planted into the illustrious and powerful mafia boss role.  Kurtz is alien-like and mysterious – he only appears in the last part of the film, built up through a haunting narrative that eventually leads to his dark lair in the jungle.  So to the casual viewer, comparing the three characters, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront might appear to be something like the “real” Marlon Brando: youthful, thoughtful and compassionate, ethically-driven.

But perhaps that is not totally the case.  In Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary about Marlon Brando comprised principally of audio tapes the actor recorded himself privately, a definitively Kurtzian vibe emerges. For me, one of the most compelling elements of Brando’s story is his own idea about acting- he regarded it as “phony nonsense,” while on the outside being continuously lauded for his skill and the profundity of his performances. The enigma is heightened by the decision of director, Stevan Riley, to have a bodiless, digitally-mapped recreation of Brando’s head read from the tapes:

The result is a disturbing Max Headroom-ish seance, like a sci-fi movie about a secret plan to keep Brando alive. I’m not sure this changes much about what we know about him – more is perhaps glimpsed in existing news footage of anguished public appearances after catastrophic events in his family life. But it reveals a lot about Brando’s poignant vulnerability and sadness. – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

It becomes increasingly apparent that the real man behind Marlon Brando cannot be captured in any one of his many roles.  Maybe in some way he is a strange amalgamation of all of them.–listen-to-me-marlon-miko-rebecca-stevan-riley

The Two Sides of Marlon Brando

Before watching On The Waterfront, my only exposure to any of Marlon Brando’s work was his role as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. I knew of his work but had never taken the time to see any of his other films or learn more about him, so after watching On The Waterfront I decided to learn a little more about Marlon Brando as a person. Besides the obvious facts & figures that can be found about awards he had won and such, something that really caught my eye was this conflicted image of who Marlon Brando really was.

On one hand, Brando was an unbelievably generous and caring person. He used his status as an American icon as a platform to advocate for many social causes. He was particularly involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, he was so deeply moved by Martin Luther King Jr. and his assassination that he even backed out of a role in The Arrangement, also directed by Elia Kazan, to dedicate his time to promoting the cause (Mell). Here’s a clip I found of Brando on a talk show with other famous actors such as Charlton Heston discussing their views on the civil rights movement.

Civil Rights 1963 – James Baldwin and Marlon Brando

In this clip, he also mentions the mistreatment of Native Americans, another cause Brando advocated for. Brando was particularly bothered by the mistreatment and typecasting of Native Americans in Hollywood. He famously protested this by declining his award for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather, sending a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his award and nationally address this issue, seen here:

Marlon Brando’s Oscar® win for ” The Godfather”

Based on all this, you would assume that Brando is an outstanding and morally good individual. But, on the other hand, after I perused the Internet I discovered that Brando wasn’t always as morally good as his actions may have let on. To pull a quote directly from his biography,

“Although Brando avoids speaking in detail about his marriages, even in his autobiography, it is known that he has been married three times to three ex-actresses. He has at least 11 children. Five of the children are with his three wives, three are with his Guatemalan housekeeper, and the other three children are from affairs. One of Brando’s sons, Christian Brando, told People magazine, “The family kept changing shape. I’d sit down at the breakfast table and say, ‘Who are you?'” ( Editors)

Along with his promiscuous lifestyle, I learned that his son Christian (quoted in the biography earlier) was also a convicted murderer and served ten years in prison. When Brando was called to the witness stand, he blamed himself for the incident by not being a good enough father to his son. He was quoted as saying, “I tried to be a good father. I did the best I could.” ( Editors). This created a multi-faceted person for me, and I was very internally conflicted about how I felt about Brando as a person.

Ultimately, it is a judgement call. Public perception praises Brando as an influential and a man of outstanding character, but the reality is that there are several wrenches thrown in that can lead to doubt about his individual character. Personally, I believe that a few transgressions should not defame a man who has done so much good in this world, especially in a world where many actors choose to avoid controversy at all costs. In Brando’s case, the good absolutely outweighs the bad, and I can now see why he is considered one of the greatest actors of his time.

On the Waterfront: Terry and Fences

In class, we had discussed the importance of fences and enclosed spaces in “On the Waterfront” in emphasizing the notion that the mob essentially “traps” people in a world of corruption. I decided to revisit some of the scenes of the movie to see how fences specifically influence and represent Terry’s character development.

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The screenshot above was pulled from the scene in which Terry first initiates a legitimate conversation with Edie. We have learned that Edie has been sheltered from the reality of the corrupt world all of her life, and that she therefore represents both innocence and morality. This scene may represent Terry’s first step in crossing over to the free and stable society on the other side of the mob’s “fence.” Their conversation leading up this point has consisted of superficial small-talk surrounding Edie’s appearance when she was younger; however, once the conversation is brought over to the fence, Edie begins explaining the importance of “patience and kindness,” which are ideals most likely prominent on the other side of the barrier. As depicted above, if Terry continues to build his relationship with Edie and begins to make realizations about his corrupt society, the alternate and almost utopian world on the other side of the fence is right at his fingertips.

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The mis-en-scene in the screenshot above evokes similar symbolism. Terry is visibly on the opposite side of the fence/cage as Edie, and there also seems to be some sort of cross-like figure behind Edie’s head. Clearly, the fence serves as a barrier between Terry and the morale, kind world that Edie is a part of. During their conversation, Terry asks Edie to go out for a beer with him, which shows his desire to break through the barrier and leave his corrupt world behind.

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The screenshot above follows directly after Terry has a conversation with Father Barry about coming clean with Edie regarding her brother’s death. It is interesting to note that prior to making the decision to confront Edie, Terry was behind the fence – the barrier to morality. Once Father Barry instills in him the importance of being honest and breaking away from his forced loyalty to the mob, he finds his away outside the fence where he confesses to Edie. In other words, he has broken away from the corruption, and while he makes Edie upset, he is one step closer to entering her world.

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The last symbolic fence that I took notice of was in one of the last scenes of the film as Terry confronts the mob leaders. In the background, it is clear that Terry had to pass through a unique fence structure; this action represents Terry officially leaving his corrupt lifestyle behind and putting his morale values over his loyalty to the mob. After seeing a shot of the entire dock (seen below), this fence seems very strategically and intentionally placed to make this point, as the fencing is not included along the entire dock.

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Overall, I am incredibly fascinated by the thoughtful mis-en-scene in the film, especially the symbolic value of fences. This class has really opened my eyes to the small, but often incredibly significant details that directors and producers include in films to emphasize the overarching message. Zeroing in on these strategic choices really enhances the film-viewing experience.

Eva Marie Saint: An Acting Icon

Though On the Waterfront was a critical (and commercial) success, receiving twelve Academy Award nominations and winning eight, a majority of the critic’s attention was on the performance of Eva Marie Saint, who made her film debut at age thirty in the film. Though On the Waterfront was her first film, Saint was far from a novice, having extensive experience in television and theater. In fact, Saint started her career as an NBC page, a highly competitive intern-like position working on the sets of various NBC shows. Additionally, Saint was nominated for an Emmy several times before On the Waterfront, winning in 1955.

Elia Kazan first discovered the actress when she was starring in the play The Trip to Bountiful. Though he was immediately drawn to her acting ability, he was still considering Elizabeth Montgomery for the part. In the end, Kazan felt Montgomery gave a “high-class” demeanor and chose Saint (who was from New Jersey) instead. During filming, Saint would leave her New York house in the morning, travel to the Hoboken set and film OTW scenes and then act in the play during the evening.

Though she was a member of the Actor’s Studio (which Kazan started), Saint initially was nervous about working with such big stars, crying before she left for set on her first day. However in later interviews, Saint admits Kazan was her favorite director. During her first scene, when she first talks to Terry on the rooftop, Kazan simply whispered to her “This is the first time you are up there with a strange man on a roof top… I want you to pretend there’s a wild animal that could come out at any time.” Saint appreciated Kazan’s subtle direction, though she also had close ties with director Alfred Hitchcock, who directed her in the film North by Northwest.

In her following career, Saint has made sporadic movie appearances (20 films from 1955-2005), preferring to work on television or the stage, which she believes challenges her to give emotionally complex performances. This striving for emotional depth is what got Saint noticed in the first place, with critics appreciating Saint’s emphasis on her acting ability and not her pretty face.

If one were to look for a modern day equivalent of Eva Marie Saint, actress Lupita Nyong’o would be an excellent comparison. Classically trained like Saint, Nyong’o also made her silver screen debut when she was thirty, appearing in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which she also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (just like Saint). Additionally, Nyong’o screen appearances have remained limited after 12 Years a Slave, appearing in just two films after 2013. However, Lupita has remained active on the stage, acting in the play Eclipsed both On and Off Broadway, since 2015. Also, both Saint and Nyong’o emphasize their acting abilities over their appearances, giving emotionally powerful performances that are lauded by critics and audiences alike. Both women are trailblazers for the female actor, displaying how attention to character and emotionally-driven performances can bring a distinct type of acting to films.

Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealism was a big influence on On the Waterfront, so it would be worth our time to look into this interesting movement.

It came out of post-WWII Italy. Italy throughout the ’30s was under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, and it suffered great economic instability as it made its first transitions into an industrial economy. The high cost of the war only made matters worse. Italy had terrible social and economic issues throughout WWII, and no one could speak up about it under the censorship of their government. So when Mussolini’s regime fell in 1943, filmmakers immediately began to broach the issues they felt were important. Italian Neorealism was born out of this situation.

This movement sought to depict the reality of Italy’s working class in the wake of the war. It had an anti-Hollywood aesthetic; no “happy endings” were allowed. These films focused on social problems and difficult moral decisions. Ordinary people were the subject, and the dialogue was simple, not literary. In general, Italian Neorelaism lacked big stylistic flare, opting instead to portray itself with simplicity.

The filmmakers who wanted to expose Italy did not have very much money to fund big projects, so their movies were filmed largely on location with nonprofessional actors. These characteristics were functional too because filming where the social problems actually took place with the people actually effected would present the situations authentically.

The only Italian Neorealist film I have personally seen is Bicycle Thieves (1948). It is one of the movement’s typical examples. It matches the characteristics point by point. The plot involves a father who has a very difficult time finding work and once he finds a job, he needs to own a bicycle to do it, so he gets one with all of the money he has left, but it is soon stolen. What follows are some devastating moral quandaries. The movie really has a helpless feel, and it puts you right into the mindset of the working class. This film goes highly recommended from me.

On the Waterfront very much takes from its Italian Neorealist predecessors. Obviously the subject matter deals with the working class and with difficult moral issues involved therein. But also On the Waterfront was filmed on location in Hoboken, NJ. Of course the main characters were played by professional actors, but many extras and minor roles were played by Hoboken residents. Clearly Kazan and Kaufman took some inspiration from Italy to give the film its gritty feel.



On the Waterfront: Boris Kaufman

boris kaufman

One of the most renowned aspects of On the Waterfront is the intense neo-realistic cinematography accredited to the esteemed cinematographer Boris Kaufman.

Kaufman was born in Bialystok, Poland on August 24, 1906.  He was the youngest of 3 brothers, with both his older brothers David Abelevich Kaufman (pseudonym  Dziga Vertov) and Mikhail Kaufman going on to be successful in the film industry in the Soviet Union.  After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Poland regained its independence and Boris along with his parents moved to Poland.  He then moved to Paris to study at the University of Paris and worked with French director Jean Vigo on a number of projects.   He then served in the French army against the Nazis.  After France fell to the Nazis, Kaufman escaped to Canada and eventually the United States in 1942.

Due to his Soviet ties, Kaufman was not permitted to work within unions in Hollywood initially.  So, he spent several years doing U.S. and Canadian documentaries and government films before being allowed to make films.

His first Hollywood feature film was On the Waterfront (1954) for which he won an Academy Award.  The film established Kaufman’s style of stark, naturalistic black-and white photography.  Kazan had selected Kaufman due to his roots in documentary film making because he believed he could inject realism into the film and use the Italian neo-realist style of filmmaking.  He was also responsible for convincing Kazan to film On the Waterfront completely on location.  Some have argued that through Kazan had showed by testifying his anti-Communist stance, he was able to bring in Kaufman who had Soviet ties.

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Following On the Waterfront, Kaufman made a series of other films including his Oscar-nominated work on Baby Doll (1956), his use of color in Splendor in the Grass (1961), before entering into a series of films with director Sidney Lument which included work the films: 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey Into the Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965) and many others.

Kaufman retired after working on Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).  He then died in New York City in 1980.


Two Men in a Taxicab

The two large men are squashed in the back of a taxi. Charley, the older brother just can’t keep still. This is the first scene we see where he isn’t the “cool guy,” strutting around, barking orders, or cracking a joke. He fidgets with his hands, his eyes wander, he adjusts his coat. He just can’t seem to meet Terry’s eyes. Meanwhile, Terry, the bullheaded bum little brother, slinks into his seat in a calming sadness of surprisingly emotive power. The scene begins Terry’s confrontation of the union’s power. By accepting what Terry has told him, by showing remorse and giving him the gun and the chance to leave the system, Charley both acknowledges his corruption and assures his own death.

When Marlon Brando looked at the script for this scene, he insisted on changing its direction. The screenplay used simple language throughout the movie, forcing Brando to communicate more through his actions and his expressions, a task which he excelled at and eventually won the Oscar for. Brando convinced Kazan that Terry should gently push the gun away when Charley pulls it out in the taxicab scene. He also insisted on reacting calmly to the gun and delivering the monologue with sadness rather than anger.

The result is incredibly poignant. Brando, himself a strong, muscular man, talks about his boxing failures with emotional depth, creating a shocking contrast between the audience’s expectations and the reality of the character. Both Brando and Rod Steiger (Charley) seem broken, though in very different ways. Their physical size and the closeness of the camera heightens the drama of their acting and highlights emotion over physical dominance (which has been established as the most valued attribute in this corrupt system). By the time Brando delivers the infamous like, “I coulda been a contender!” the audience’s image of him as a tough, D&D guy is completely broken, before he even confesses his love for Edie or testifies against Friendly.

To truly understand the power of Brando’s acting, here’s the text of the monologue. When you read it, without watching the scene, it sounds like an angry deadbeat complaining about the past.

It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you 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 coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. 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, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.

Here’s a Youtube clip of Brando delivering the monologue. Notice how soft his voice is, despite what he’s actually saying. Notice how Steiger reacts, how he stutters and looks away. Notice how Brando slumps into the seat before and after the monologue. The acting is exquisite on both ends.

Brando was actually very upset with his performance in this scene, though critics have always lauded it as some of his best acting. In his autobiography, Brando recounts that he left the theatre at a preview screening of the movie without comment. The Academy clearly disagreed with his evaluation, and this movie, along with Streetcar, propelled Brando into success as one of the greatest actors of his generation.



On the Waterfront has been praised for its acting, its social message, its direction, its realism, and pretty much everything else that you could imagine. But today, I want to talk about one thing that no one seems to ever talk about in regards to this movie. That one, five word phrase that everyone knows but no one mentions, “I coulda been a contender.”

The line comes about in this scene where Terry and his brother are in the cab talking about how Terry could have become a great boxer if it hadn’t been for his brother’s involvements with the mob and the dirty side of betting. The line is a great culmination of all of the emotion in the scene. It was meant to evoke a lot of empathy for Terry and his life. However, watching the movie, I didn’t have that emotion at all because I was thinking about all of the places where I’ve heard that line.

We could mention the obvious choice, which is Rocky, mainly because that movie really gets me going. I really want to talk about the song Funny You Should Ask by The Front Bottoms because I love that band. But there’s just too many to choose from. So I’m forced to go a different route.

As in most aspects of life, something only truly becomes a cultural phenomenon when it gets its own TVTropes page. That link takes you to a whole page of times when either someone said the phrase “I coulda been a contender” or just the concept of someone possibly having been a contender is an important part of the media. There are dozens upon dozens of entries, and I know that Front Bottoms song hasn’t been added yet, so there could be more. And you know what, the quote at the top is the scene from On The Waterfront. And if you look around, there’s nowhere else that line came from.

I know Kazan will be remembered forever, and I hope it’s for something a little more than this.