‘On the Waterfront’ is a film that depicts a young man’s struggle between conflicting choices in the cruel and unforgiving waterfront days of the 1950’s. Director Elia Kazan opts to shoot the film in black and white to distinguish between the obvious right and wrong state of affairs on the waterfront. Despite how obvious they are, the decisions Terry Malloy must make are not so easy. As Terry fights his own internal battle and continues to stick to the waterfront customs of being ‘D and D’, he is seen as brainless and uncaring; essentially ‘a bum’. Throughout the film however, Terry evolves and after complaining that he ‘coulda been somebody’, finally becomes someone worthy of our admiration as he overcomes the ties of corruption that previously held him.
When we are introduced to Terry, he is initially seen as a Johnny Friendly’s puppet and has very little self-worth. Terry isn’t particularly fused about work and instead devotes his energy and care to his racing pigeons and follows Friendly’s orders. His sightless loyalty to Friendly and his mob make him reluctant to see their cynical use of him. Unbelievably, as an insider, Terry was unbeknown to the Union’s murders which led to his surprise at Joey’s death. Terry’s facilitation in the murder causes him to resent Friendly and question his own actions and choices. In many of the scenes containing Terry, we see fences and cages which symbolise him being trapped in his own conscience. This underlines the importance of Kazan’s view to trust one’s conscience rather than one’s duty. Terry knows what the union did was wrong but if he spills it out, then his ‘life ain’t worth a nickel’. On the waterfront it’s ‘every man for himself’, but with the help of Edie and Father Barry, Terry leans toward the idea of testifying in the hope of helping others as well.
Terry’s reluctance to testify against the union displays their power and that ‘it ain’t safe’. He has been loyal to Friendly and his mob for as long as he can remember and doesn’t know what it’s like to lead himself. Terry experiences feelings of being trapped and finds it impossible to break free until he gets to know Edie and Father Barry. Edie’s modesty and acceptance open up a new place in Terry’s rough heart, helping him to regain his conscience. She thinks ‘everybody should care about everybody else’ which is contradictory to Terry’s thoughts, but her and Father Barry work to convince him that he should testify. Terry’s brother Charley also plays a part in his decision. Charley is accused by Terry that he ‘shoulda looked out for me’. Full of shame and guilt for the way he treated his brother, Charley chooses to save his brother’s life while risking his own. It eventually takes the death of Charley to bring Terry to the point where he will give evidence of corruption by the union to the Crime Commission. Terry is appalled at the death of Charley at the hands of the union and wants to ‘take it out on their skulls’. He is learning to trust his own judgement and after all, Father Barry raises the important point of ‘how much is his soul worth’ if he doesn’t testify?