VCE English Outcome 1: On the Waterfront

Terry says to Charley: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am”.

Does the film support Terry’s judgment of himself?

Poor Terry Malloy: stuck between a rock and a hard place, or conversely between the hard men of the mob and struggling to find the rock of Christian morality. For years the dockworkers at the Port of New York in the 1940’s had allowed a culture of petty mob-rule to thrive according to an ethos of “Do it to him before he does it to you” without ever fully realising that such a brutal philosophy meant to live “like an animal,” like pigeons amongst hawks “selling [their] souls to the mob for a day’s pay.” It was a feudal society, with the camel-coats at the top and the hook-men at the bottom with never a chance to rise unless “you want to end up like that.” “That” was Thomas Collantine, a young man shot and killed “by an unidentified gunman” as he left home in the morning for work. Similarly, the 1954 film begins with the murder of a man, the “best kid on the block”, who chooses to defy the criminal ring-leader of the circus of indenture and oppose the mob. In the film, union boss Johnny Friendly’s tactics are brutal – anyone who steps out of line is quickly struck down. No wonder Terry for so long finds himself down for the count, and lying low in the hold on his bottom. No wonder even the character of a homeless man, living an impoverished life outside the rule of the mob, refuses the charity of Terry’s immorality and calls him a “bum”.

By contrast Father Barry, once he – the “saint” – emerges from his Church, proves a determined fighter. This character, convincingly played by the pugnacious Karl Maldon, was based on the courageous “Waterfront priest” Father Peter Corridan, a man more than willing and able to stand up for what he believed was right. Budd Schulberg tells us that the dialogue in the film delivered over Kayo Duggan’s body comes “word for word” from a sermon delivered by the priest on the docks called “Christ in the shape-up.” In this sermon, the priest tells the longshoremen “Only you with God’s help have the power to knock them out for good.” The word “shape-up” has a double-meaning here – it refers to a fight, but also to the daily ritual of workers fronting up in the morning to the docks, where they were expected to signal their compliance to the mob with a finger below their cap to indicate their acceptance of the mob’s tithe. Throughout the film the dialogue of the characters is wonderfully peppered with boxing euphemisms to emphasise the battle being fought over the protagonist’s soul and those of his fellows, such that Terry Malloy can easily share with the crime commission investigator the observation that “When those guys wanna win a bet there’s nothing they won’t stop at.” Father Barry/Corridan’s faith, fortunately, never faltered.

With such allies in his corner, Terry is able to find his faith. At first he is reluctant, telling Edie “There’s nothin’ I can do,” even as he struggles with his conscience. Yet Father Barry puts it to him clearly: “Every time the mob puts the crush on a good man; tries to stop him doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around, and lets it happen, [Marlon Brando as Terry is pictured here in a close-up biting his knuckles and looking thoughtful] keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt…” After such exhortations, Terry is able make the right choice: he puts his newfound thought into action, and he immediately knocks one of Johnny Friendly’s goons down. Suddenly he is a contender again, able to wear the symbol of rebellion against mob rule in Joey’s jacket. Suddenly he is a man ready to rise up and achieve “much much more.”

What is shown in these arguments is that Terry’s judgement of himself is never false. Rather, it is the values that he holds that shift, resulting in a changed state and status. He knows that after taking a dive on the instructions of his brother that the only thinking or “counting” he is good for, as Big Mack puts it, is “Hearing the referee count to ten.” For a long time he is not paid to “think”, quite the opposite in fact. He knows that if he is prepared to think for himself and deny the mob’s “sweet deal” his life “ain’t worth a nickel.” When he describes his past failures to his brother in the cab he is still unsure of himself and has yet to pursue the actions that will absolve him of his guilty, lazy and submissive past. The man, if he is to achieve salvation, must prove “I ain’t a bum Edie… I’m just gonna go down there, and get my rights.” He does this first in the court-room, and then emphatically leads the workers to victory on the docks: like Christ on the cross, losing the battle but “win[ning] the war.” Kazan’s Oscar winning narrative proved a similar victory in Hollywood: Father Corridan stated after viewing the pre-screening “When the public sees what a shape-up is really like, [the gangsters] will never be able to hold [the docks] again.” Terry’s victory proved a victory for justice and for all, but ultimately a victory for his own sense of pride and identity.

On a final point, the scene in which Terry tells Charley “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am”, is held in particularly special regard by Hollywood. Kazan reflects on how “It was one of those magical days when the elements all came together (Umm, I’m unfortunately making this up until I can check the interview again!)”, such that his choice of black and white film, the tight frame of the two in the back seat of the cab, and the chemistry between the actors combined successfully to construct a claustrophobic, climactic classic take. The engagement demonstrated by both actors in this pivotal scene displays terrific skill, for they successfully convey a conflict shared by loving brothers in extraordinary times. Love, pride, regret, guilt, desperation, sacrifice, resolution – the characters know such thoughts and feelings, but it was through the performances of Brando and Steiger and the direction of Kazan that these words became immortal. The audience leaves the cinema remembering this point of crisis clearly, and wondering about the roads we each take and the choices we make in our lives, as well as the pressures we must “shape-up” to if we are to achieve justice in a world of many challenges.

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