top of page
  • Writer's pictureRonny Duncan Studios

On the Waterfront (1954)

What is this movie is about?/Elevator Pitch: One man's struggle to find the good in himself to stand up and do what is right.

Plot Summary: Dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming boxer until ordered to throw a fight by powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry, now working for Friendly, helps set up another longshoreman, Joey Doyle, who is talking to the Waterfront Crime Commissioner. Not knowing that he was helping Friendly in Joey’s murder, Terry’s conscience is disturbed, and he starts questioning his involvement. Circumstances place Terry around Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and a romance develops. This relationship, together with the advice and support of streetwise priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), pushes Terry to decide his path. Does he stand up to Friendly and turn his back on Friendly’s right-hand man, Terry's brother Charley (Rod Steiger), risking his own life and safety, or does Terry "follow the code" and remain silent?


  • Elia Kazan, Director

  • Budd Schulberg, Writer

  • Leonard Bernstein, Composer

  • 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

  • Martin Balsam as Gillette, Secondary Investigator for Crime Commission (uncredited)


  • On the Waterfront was released on July 28, 1954.

  • Upon its release, the film received positive reviews from critics, and was a commercial success, earning an estimated $9.6 million at the box office in 1954.

  • It currently holds a 99% among critics on RT, a 91 score on Metacritic, and a 4.1/5 on Letterboxd.

  • 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 "[w]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."

  • On the Waterfront received 12 Oscar Nominations including Best Original Score for Leonard Bernstein (the only movie score he did that was not an adaptation of one of his stage shows), and three Best Supporting Actor nominations for Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger.

  • The film won 9 Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Kazan), Actor (Brando), Supporting Actress (Saint), Story/Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Black and White Art Direction, Black and White Cinematography, and Film Editing.

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

  • It has been recognized by the American Film Institute on the following lists:

    • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #8

    • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:

      • 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

    • 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

  • In 1989, On the Waterfront was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Did You Know:

  • In his biography of Elia Kazan, Richard Schickel describes how Kazan used a ploy to entice Marlon Brando to do the movie. He had Karl Malden direct a scene from the film with an up-and-coming fellow actor from the Actors Studio playing the Terry Malloy lead role. They figured the competitive Brando would not be eager to see such a major role handed to some new screen heartthrob. The ploy worked, especially since the competition had come in the form of a guy named Paul Newman.

  • The leading characters were based on real people: Terry Malloy was based on longshoreman and whistle-blower Anthony De Vincenzo; Father Barry was based on waterfront priest John M. Corridan; Johnny Friendly was based on mobster Albert Anastasia. The hat and coat worn by Karl Malden in the film belonged to Fr. Corridan.

  • Arthur Miller was approached by Elia Kazan to write the screenplay, and did so, but later pulled it when the FBI and studio bosses required him to make the gangsters Communists.

  • "On the Waterfront (1954)" is widely known to be an act of expiation on the part of Elia Kazan for naming names to HUAC during the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. What is less widely reported is that Kazan intended it as a direct attack at his former close friend Arthur Miller who had been openly critical of Kazan's actions. Specifically, it was a direct response to Miller's play "The Crucible."

  • As part of his contract, Marlon Brando only worked until 4:00 every day and then would leave to go see his analyst. Brando's mother had recently died and the conflicted young actor was in therapy to resolve his issues with his parents. Interestingly, for the film's classic scene between Rod Steiger and Brando in the back of the cab, all of Steiger's close-ups were filmed after Brando had left for the day, so Brando's lines were read by one of the crew members. For many years Steiger, who had actually stayed during Brando's close-ups to help him put in a better performance, remained very bitter that Brando didn't return the favor, and often mentioned it in interviews.

  • Grace Kelly turned down the role of Edie Doyle, deciding to make "Rear Window (1954)" instead.

  • The scene where Eva Marie Saint drops her glove and Marlon Brando picks it up and puts it on his hand was unplanned. Saint dropped her glove accidentally in rehearsal and Brando improvised the rest. Elia Kazan loved the new business and asked them to repeat it for the take.

  • Thomas Handley, who played Terry Molloy's teenage friend Tommy, was hired by the production to feed the pigeons on set. His father, a longshoreman, had been blackballed for anti-union activities, and disappeared when Hanley was four months old. Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg had him audition for the role, and coaxed an angry response out of him by calling his father a rat. He was paid $500 for his role, but never really acted again. He went on to become a longshoreman, and in 2002 was elected recording secretary of his union after yet another corrupt leadership was ousted.

  • Shortly after the film's debut in 1954, the AFL-CIO expelled the East Coast longshoremen's union because it was still run by the mob.

  • Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and Abe Simon, who play Johnny Friendly's heavies, were all former professional boxers and opponents of Joe Louis for the heavyweight world title. Simon fought the Brown Bomber twice and was knocked out in Round 13 in the first fight and Round 6 in the second. Galento and Mauriello fought Louis once apiece and shared similar fates. Galento was KO'ed in Round 4 and Mauriello in Round 1.

Best Performance: Marlon Brando (Terry)

Best Secondary Performance: Elia Kazan (Director)

Most Charismatic Award: Lee J. Cobb (Friendly)

Best Scene:

  • Joey's Murder

  • Terry Walks Edie Home

  • Church Meeting

  • Terry and Edie's First Date

  • Dugan's Death

  • Terry Confesses to Edie

  • I Coulda Been a Contender...

  • The Crime Commission

  • Terry Takes on Friendly

Favorite Scene: Terry Takes on Friendly/Terry Walks Edie Home

Most Indelible Moment: I Coulda Been a Contender...

In Memorium:

Best Lines/Funniest Lines:

Father Barry: D & D? What’s that?

Kayo Dugan: Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat.

Terry: Conscience... that stuff can drive you nuts!

Edie: Which side are you with?

Terry: Me? I'm with me, Terry.

Terry: Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.

Terry: If I spill, my life ain't worth a nickel.

Father Barry: And how much is your soul worth if you don't?

Father Barry: Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle's life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that's a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it's a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead.

Terry: You think you're God Almighty, but you know what you are? You're a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinkin' mug! And I'm glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I'm glad what I done!

Charlie: You're getting on. You're pushing 30. You know, it's time to think about getting some ambition.

Terry: I always figured I'd live a bit longer without it.

Charlie: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Terry: 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.

Charlie: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: 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.

The Stanley Rubric:

Legacy: 7.5

Impact/Significance: 9

Novelty: 9.5

Classic-ness: 8.25

Rewatchability: 7.5

Audience Score: 8.85 (82% Google, 95% RT)

Total: 50.6

Remaining Questions:

  • Because the implication of the end of the film is that Terry becomes the leader of the Longshoremen, do you really believe that Terry would be able to leader the union?

  • Why would Johnny Friendly kill Charley? It's never made sense to me.

  • Why would Edie be in love with Terry?


bottom of page