Top 100 Movie Review: #8 – On the Waterfront (1954)

A Supremely Good Character Study

This movie has it all: interesting story, good setting, great acting, amazing musical score, but the character of Terry Malloy is in another stratosphere. 

A young Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

American Film Institutes Ranking: #8/100
Awards: Nominated for twelve winning eight, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actress.
My Rating: cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

At its heart, this is a classic good vs. evil. Where it gets complicated is every character has a lean they are facing, and we wait to see how they are going to act under pressure. The character that has the most pressure is Terry Malloy; he a complicated and fascinating lead and is the reason this movie is worthy of such high praise.

[story and spoilers.] Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando — he looks so young!) is a dockworker. While the mob controls the industry, Terry gets preferential treatment for a couple reason: first, His brother, Charley the Gent (played by Rod Steiger), is the right hand man of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) the head mobster; second, he threw a boxing match some years ago for Friendly so he could win money on the match.

Fed up with the mobs control of the longshoreman, Joey Doyle, a fellow dock worker, works with police to build a case against Johnny Friendly. The mob uses Terry to set him up, sending him to the top of a building, but unbeknownst to Terry, the mob uses this opportunity to push him off the roof to kill him. This sends Joey’s sister, Edie (played by Eva Marie Saint), into a furor, promising to find out who killed her brother and get back at the mob. She recruits the help of the local priest, Father Berry (played by Karl Malden).

on-the-waterfront (1)
Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle in a park, part of the famous white glove scene. .

Terry is a conflicted mess, and watching him work through his pain, turmoil, and inner demons is the main intrigue of the movie. At his heart, he’s scared and has no self-esteem. He hides this with a certain braggadocio that exposes how uneducated he is. But, Terry is smart enough to know this about himself — since he threw his career as a boxer for the mob, being a dock worker is all he will ever be. He holds that resentment from his lost potential deep and tight. But, no matter how guilty he feels about his actions leading to Joey’s death, he feels trapped knowing he has no options.

A relationship buds between Edie and Terry. Edie is a foil to Terry on multiple fronts, educated in school, not projecting a false self, and not having the emotional baggage of the lead character. She is pure, just like the white gloves she wears through the park. She grinds away at Terry’s projection, exposing his doubts, concerns, and guilt. At first, she does not know that she’s talking to the person who set up her brother, and we have to wait patiently for the other shoe to drop to see how everyone will handle it.

The intrigue of this movie is the pressure — you never know which way a character is going to break. Terry seems to be going down the path of redemption, but a little bit of mob pressure and you are unsure if he’s going to remain. You know Edie loves Terry, but is it enough to overcome when she finds out he was involved in her brother’s killing?

The most famous scene from the film, Terry talks to his mobster brother Charlie about all of his lost potential. Charlie has actually been sent to either persuade Terry to not go against the mob or to kill him. Another scene with everyone pressuring everyone else — who is going to give in to what? After a monologue about his lost potential, letting out all that resentment and exposing the pain of just being a bum, Charlie does neither options the mob gave him — and pays the ultimate price.

Terry Malloy with the only thing he trusts – his pet pigeons.

Terry is lonely. He is afraid of others, and no one has ever loved him — just used him whether throwing a boxing match or being the set-up man for a snuff. We yearn for him to find his self-worth, to listen to Edie, and to defeat the evil mob as he is the only one positioned to do it. Unfortunately his demons aren’t so easy to tame, and Terry’s progression through the movie is tortuous.

The labyrinth of Terry Malloy is an amazing character study from an amazing movie, worthy of all its praise with the ending satisfying the soul after such a tumultuous journey.

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