On the Waterfront (1954)


On the Waterfront (1954)

Terry Malloy dreams about being a prize fighter, while tending his pigeons and running errands at the docks for Johnny Friendly, the corrupt boss of the dockers union. Terry witnesses a murder by two of Johnny's thugs, and later meets the dead man's sister and feels responsible for his death. She introduces him to Father Barry, who tries to force him to provide information for the courts that will smash the dock racketeers.
IMDb   8.1 /10
Metacritic   91 %
TheMovieDb    8.0 /10
FilmAffinity   8.1 /10
Director Elia Kazan
Writer Budd Schulberg
Writer Malcolm Johnson
Writer Robert Siodmak
Release Date1954-06-22
Runtime1h 48mins
GenreCrime, Drama, Thriller
Content RatingApproved (Approved)
AwardsTop Rated Movies #183 | Won 8 Oscars. Another 22 wins & 9 nominations.
CompanyHorizon Pictures
Terry Malloy
Father Barry
Johnny Friendly
Charley Malloy
Pat Henning
Pat Henning
Kayo Dugan
John F. Hamilton
John F. Hamilton
'Pop' Doyle (as John Hamilton)
Don Blackman
Don Blackman

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront is a 1954 American crime drama film, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. It stars Marlon Brando and features Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, and Eva Marie Saint in her film debut. The musical score was composed by Leonard Bernstein. The film was suggested by "Crime on the Waterfront" by Malcolm Johnson, a series of articles published in November–December 1948 in the New York Sun which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, but the screenplay by Budd Schulberg is directly based on his own original story. The film focuses on union violence and corruption amongst longshoremen, while detailing widespread corruption, extortion, and racketeering on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey.

On the Waterfront was a critical and commercial success. It received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan. In 1997, it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth-greatest American movie of all time; in AFI's 2007 list, it was ranked 19th. It is Bernstein's only original film score not adapted from a stage production with songs.

In 1989, On the Waterfront was one of the first 25 films to be deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.


Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) gloats about his iron-fisted control of the waterfront. The police and the Waterfront Crime Commission know that Friendly is behind a number of murders, but witnesses play "D and D" ("deaf and dumb"), accepting their subservient position, rather than risking the danger and shame of informing.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker whose brother Charley "the Gent" (Rod Steiger) is Friendly's right-hand man. Terry had been a promising boxer until Friendly instructed Charley to have Terry deliberately lose a fight so that Friendly could win money by betting against him. Terry coaxes Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), a popular dockworker, into an ambush, preventing Joey from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry assumed that Friendly's enforcers were only going to "lean" on Joey to pressure him into silence, and is surprised when Joey is killed.

Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), angry about her brother's death, shames "waterfront priest" Father Barry (Karl Malden) into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Friendly sends Terry to attend and inform on a dockworkers' meeting Father Barry holds in the church, which is broken up by Friendly's men. Terry helps Edie escape the violence, and is smitten with her. Another dockworker, Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan (Pat Henning), who agrees to testify after Father Barry promises unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.

Although Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey's death, and despite Father Barry's impassioned "sermon on the docks" reminding the longshoremen that Christ walks among them and that every murder is a crucifixion, Terry is at first willing to remain "D and D", even when subpoenaed to testify. However, when Edie, unaware of Terry's role in her brother's death, begins to return Terry's feelings, Terry is tormented by his awakening conscience and confesses the circumstances of Joey's death to Father Barry and Edie. Horrified, Edie breaks up with him.

As Terry increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry, offering him a good job where he can receive kickbacks without any physical work, and finally threatens Terry by holding a gun against him, but recognizes that he has failed to sway Terry, who blames his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. Terry reminds Charley that had it not been for the fixed fight, Terry's prizefighting career would have bloomed. "I coulda' had class. I coulda' been a contender. I could've been somebody", laments Terry to his brother, "Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let's face it." Charley gives Terry the gun, and advises him to run. Terry flees to Edie's apartment, where she first refuses to let him in, but finally admits her love for him. Friendly, having had Charley watched, has Charley murdered that night near the apartment and his body hung in an alley as bait to lure Terry out to his death, but Terry and Edie both escape.

After finding Charley's body, Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry prevents it by blocking Terry's line of fire and convincing Terry to fight Friendly by testifying in court instead. Terry proceeds to give damaging testimony implicating Friendly in Joey's murder and other illegal activities, causing Friendly's mob boss to cut him off and Friendly to face indictment.

After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Terry is shunned by his former friends and by a neighborhood boy who had previously looked up to him. Refusing Edie's suggestion that they move far away from the waterfront together, Terry shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry openly confronts Friendly, calling him out and proclaiming that he is proud of what he did. The confrontation develops into a vicious brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly's thugs gang up on Terry and nearly beat him to death. The dockworkers, who witness the confrontation, show their support for Terry by refusing to work, unless Terry is working, too, and pushing Friendly into the river. Encouraged by Father Barry and Edie, the badly injured Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other workers. A soaking wet and face-scarred Friendly, now left with nothing, swears revenge on them all, but his threats fall on deaf ears as they enter the garage, and the door closes behind them.


  • Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy
  • Karl Malden as Father Pete Barry
  • Lee J. Cobb as Michael J. Skelly aka "Johnny Friendly"
  • Rod Steiger as Charley "the Gent" Malloy
  • Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle
  • Pat Henning as Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan
  • John F. Hamilton as "Pop" Doyle
  • Ben Wagner as Joey Doyle
  • James Westerfield as Big Mac
  • Fred Gwynne as Mladen "Slim" Sekulovich
  • Leif Erickson as Lead Investigator for Crime Commission
  • Rudy Bond as Moose
  • Martin Balsam as Gillette, Secondary Investigator for Crime Commission (uncredited)
  • Katherine MacGregor as a Longshoreman's Mother (uncredited)
  • Pat Hingle as Jocko (uncredited)
  • Nehemiah Persoff as Cab Driver (uncredited)
  • Abe Simon as Barney


Screenplay and political context

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The film is widely considered to be Elia Kazan's answer to those who criticized him for identifying eight (former) Communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. One of Kazan's critics was his friend and collaborator, the noted playwright Arthur Miller, who had earlier written the first version of the script, originally titled The Hook. Kazan had agreed to direct it, and in 1951 they met with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures about making the picture. Cohn agreed in principle to make The Hook, but there were concerns about the portrayal of corrupt union officials. When Cohn asked the antagonists be changed to Communists, Miller refused. Cohn sent a letter telling Miller it was interesting he had resisted Columbia's desire to make the movie "pro-American". Kazan asked Miller to rewrite the script; Miller declined due to his disenchantment with Kazan's friendly testimony before the HUAC. Kazan then replaced Miller with Budd Schulberg.

After rewriting the script, Schulberg and Kazan approached Darryl F. Zanuck, who eventually told them he did not like a single thing about the script, asking, "Who's going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?" This led Kazan and Schulberg to meet with independent producer Sam Spiegel, who set up a deal with Columbia. Spiegel was insistent on Schulberg delivering a perfect screenplay, and barraged the writer with changes and suggestions, to the frustration of Schulberg.

Schulberg's script nonetheless went through a number of changes before reaching the screen. In an early draft, the Terry Malloy character was not an ex-pug dockworker, but a cynical investigative reporter, as well as an older, divorced man.

Real-life basis for characters

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Terry Malloy's fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DeVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission about activities on the Hoboken Docks and suffered a degree of ostracism for his deed. DeVincenzo sued and settled, many years after, with Columbia Pictures over the appropriation of what he considered his story. DeVincenzo claimed to have recounted his story to screenwriter Budd Schulberg during a month-long session of waterfront barroom meetings. Schulberg attended DeVincenzo's waterfront commission testimony every day during the hearing.

The character of Father Barry was based on the real-life "waterfront priest" Father John M. Corridan, a Jesuit priest and graduate of Regis High School who operated a Roman Catholic labor school on the west side of Manhattan. Father Corridan was interviewed extensively by Schulberg, who also wrote the foreword to a biography of Father Corridan, Waterfront Priest by Allen Raymond.

The character of Johnny Friendly was partially based on International Longshoremen's Association East River dock boss Michael Clemente. Friendly also had aspects of former Murder, Inc. head Albert Anastasia, who was underboss and later the boss for the Mangano crime family that ran the Brooklyn docks, later renamed the Gambino crime family. In 1979, Clemente and other members of the Genovese family were indicted for corruption and racketeering on the New York waterfront.


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According to Richard Schickel in his biography of Kazan, Marlon Brando initially refused the role of Terry Malloy, and Frank Sinatra (a native of Hoboken, where the film was being made) then had "a handshake deal" – but no formally signed contract – to play the part, even attending an initial costume fitting. But Kazan still favored Brando for the role, partly because casting Brando would assure a larger budget for the picture. While Brando's agent, Jay Kanter, attempted to persuade Brando to change his mind, Kazan enlisted actor Karl Malden, whom Kazan considered more suited to a career as a director than as an actor, to direct and film a screen test of a "more Brando-like" actor as Terry Malloy, in an effort to persuade Spiegel that "an actor like Marlon Brando" could perform the role more forcefully than Sinatra. To that end, Malden filmed a screen test of Actors Studio members Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward performing the love scene between Terry and Edie. Persuaded by the Newman/Woodward screen test, Spiegel agreed to reconsider Brando for the role, and shortly afterward, Kanter convinced Brando to reconsider his refusal. Within a week, Brando signed a contract to perform in the film. At that point, a furious Sinatra demanded to be cast in the role of Father Barry, the waterfront priest. It was left to Spiegel to break the news to Sinatra that Malden had been signed for this role.

The part of Edie Doyle was offered to Grace Kelly, who turned it down, preferring to make Rear Window instead. Kazan said in his autobiography A Life that the choice of an actress to play Edie Doyle was narrowed to Elizabeth Montgomery and Eva Marie Saint. There was something well-bred about Montgomery that Kazan thought would not be becoming for Edie, who was raised on the waterfront in Hoboken, New Jersey. He gave the part to Saint.

The role of Terry's older brother Charley was originally offered to Lawrence Tierney, who asked for too much money, so the role went to Rod Steiger. Despite playing Terry's older brother, Steiger was one year younger than Brando.

Several of the labor boss's men in the film, including Abe Simon as Barney, Tony Galento as Truck, and Tami Mauriello as Tillio, were former professional heavyweight boxers in real life.

Filming locations

On the Waterfront was filmed over 36 days on location in various places in Hoboken, New Jersey, including the docks, workers' slum dwellings, bars, littered alleys, and rooftops. The church used for exterior scenes in the film was the historic Our Lady of Grace, built in 1874, while the interiors were shot at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul at 400 Hudson Street.


Upon its release, the film received positive reviews from critics, and was a commercial success, earning an estimated $4.2 million at the North American box office in 1954. In his July 29, 1954, review, New York Times critic A. H. Weiler called the film "an uncommonly powerful, exciting, and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals".

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a critical score of 99% from 99 reviews with an average rating of 9.2/10 and a critical consensus of "With his electrifying performance in Elia Kazan's thought-provoking, expertly constructed melodrama, Marlon Brando redefined the possibilities of acting for film and helped permanently alter the cinematic landscape". Gaining the Academy Award for Best Actor and being named the greatest and second-greatest film performance of all time by Aaron West of Criterion and by Premiere respectively, Brando's performance is regarded as one of the watershed moments in the history of movies.

Through his portrayal of Terry Malloy, Brando popularized method acting and conclusively exemplified the power of Stanislavski-based approach in cinema. Praising Brando in 2004, director Martin Scorsese noted that "hen you watch his work in On the Waterfront ... you’re watching the purest poetry imaginable, in dynamic motion". Kazan, the director of the film, would later write in his book, "If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don't know what it is."

Al Pacino, recounting his own memories on first seeing On the Waterfront, told Playboy in a 1979 interview that he concentrated more on the lead actor than the film itself, "I couldn't move. I couldn't leave the theatre. I’d never seen the like of it." Anthony Hopkins said, "When you see Brando in the famous cab scene in On the Waterfront, it's still breathtaking." In a eulogy for Brando, Jack Nicholson described his display "probably the height of any age", and added that, "You just couldn’t take your eyes off the guy. He was spellbinding." Benedict Cumberbatch called the film "phenomenal" and "a real benchmark … for actors and acting", while talking to W Magazine about his crush on Brando in 2015. Robert Pattinson contended that every actor should see Brando's performance in the film, "You can watch it a billion times and it's still quite shockingly good. It just has infinite value."

Awards and honors

Academy AwardsBest Motion PictureSam SpiegelWon
Best DirectorElia KazanWon
Best ActorMarlon BrandoWon
Best Supporting ActorLee J. CobbNominated
Karl MaldenNominated
Rod SteigerNominated
Best Supporting ActressEva Marie SaintWon
Best Story and ScreenplayBudd SchulbergWon
Best Art Direction – Black-and-WhiteRichard DayWon
Best Cinematography – Black-and-WhiteBoris KaufmanWon
Best Film EditingGene MilfordWon
Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy PictureLeonard BernsteinNominated
Bambi AwardsBest Film – InternationalOn the WaterfrontWon
Best Actor – InternationalMarlon BrandoNominated
Bodil AwardsBest American FilmOn the WaterfrontWon
British Academy Film AwardsBest Film from any SourceNominated
Best Foreign ActorMarlon BrandoWon
Most Promising Newcomer to FilmEva Marie SaintNominated
Directors Guild of America AwardsOutstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion PicturesElia KazanWon
Golden Globe AwardsBest Motion Picture – DramaOn the WaterfrontWon
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – DramaMarlon BrandoWon
Best Director – Motion PictureElia KazanWon
Best Cinematography – Black and WhiteBoris KaufmanWon
International Film Music Critics Association AwardsBest Archival Release of an Existing Score – Re-Release or Re-RecordingLeonard Bernstein (music), Douglass Fake (album producer), Frank K. DeWald (liner notes) and Joe Sikoryak (album art direction)Won
Nastro d'ArgentoBest Foreign FilmElia KazanWon
National Board of Review AwardsBest FilmOn the WaterfrontWon
Top Ten FilmsWon
National Film Preservation BoardNational Film RegistryInducted
New York Film Critics Circle AwardsBest FilmWon
Best DirectorElia KazanWon
Best ActorMarlon BrandoWon
Best ActressEva Marie SaintNominated
Online Film & Television AssociationHall of Fame – Motion PictureOn the WaterfrontWon
Venice International Film FestivalGolden LionElia KazanNominated
Silver LionWon
OCIC AwardWon
Pasinetti AwardWon
Writers Guild of America AwardsBest Written American DramaBudd SchulbergWon

In 1989, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

In 1995, it made it on the Vatican's list of 45 greatest films.

American Film Institute recognition

  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #8
  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains: Terry Malloy – #23 Hero Johnny Friendly – Nominated Villain
  • Terry Malloy – #23 Hero
  • Johnny Friendly – Nominated Villain
  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes: "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." – #3
  • "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." – #3
  • AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – #22
  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers – #36
  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #19
  • AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Gangster film

Home media

The first home video release of the film was by Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment in 1982, on VHS and Beta. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video later re-released it in 1984, 1986, and 1990, respectively, the latter being a part of the Columbia Classics line-up. Columbia TriStar later reissued the film on VHS in 1995 as part of the line-up's "Studio Heritage Collection", and the first DVD version was released in 2001. Among the special features is the featurette "Contender: Mastering the Method", a video photo gallery, an interview with Elia Kazan, an audio commentary, filmographies, production notes, and theatrical trailers. The film has been added to the Criterion Collection.

The 2013 Criterion Collection release presents the film in three aspect ratios: 1.66:1, 1.85:1, and 1.33:1. The accompanying booklet explains the reasoning behind this choice: "In 1953, Columbia Pictures was transitioning to the new widescreen format and declared that all its upcoming films, including On The Waterfront, would be suitable for projection in any aspect ratio from the full frame of 1.33:1 to the then widest standard of 1.85:1. The customary frame of European cinematographer Boris Kaufman (Twelve Angry Men, Baby Doll) split the difference at 1.66:1, so that all that was required was for him to leave extra room at the top and bottom of the frame and make sure that nothing essential would be lost in the widescreen presentation. At its premiere in 1954, On The Waterfront was projected at 1.85:1. Over subsequent decades, millions of television viewers became accustomed to seeing the film with the open-matte 1.33:1 framing, a presentation that has carried over into the home video era. Here, for the first time, Criterion is presenting the film in all three aspect ratios so that viewers can compare and choose the version they prefer."


Building on the success of the film, Schulberg expanded the script into a novel titled Waterfront that was released in 1955.

The film script was adapted to stage by Schulberg. It opened on Broadway in November 1984. It included technical innovations for the time, including lasers, filmlike scenic dissolves and sounds that enveloped the audience. The story is a little different, with the motivations of Father Barry made more explicit, and the ending is less happy and more realistic.

The Indian films Kabzaa (1988) and Ghulam (1998) are inspired by On the Waterfront.

The TV show On the Waterfront (2001) is a spoof/homage to the film.