There is a famous scene in On the Waterfront. Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, sits in a taxi lit by menacing street lights flashing past. He confronts his brother, and himself, with the recognition that his only talent, boxing, was thrown away for a dodgy bet: 'I could have been someone. I could have been a contender.' This powerful scene expresses dilemmas at the heart of the film individual advancement versus human solidarity, betrayal versus love.
On the Waterfront is one of the most successful of a whole genre of social issue films made in Hollywood in the 1940s and early 1950s which reflected both the strong upsurge in working class struggle which preceded the Cold War and McCarthyism and the strong influence of the Communist Party in the cultural arena. On the Waterfront has none of the chic cynicism of many of the film noir thrillers made in the same period. Instead, it is a film about unglamorous dock workers who jostle each other for a day's work, live in overcrowded tenements and never escape from the industrial landscape and soundscape of the docks which physically dominate the characters. It is a film in which the visual drama of steam and smoke, dark shadows or over-lit bars matches the fast moving drama of the action, and the music score by Leonard Bernstein heightens the emotion. It is a film full of powerful images; of pigeons and predatory hawks, of human beings turned into dead meat and of a constant struggle to survive.
On the Waterfront is quite rightly famous for the strength of the acting. Rod Steiger, Karl Maldon and Lee J Cobb give it their considerable all, but Marlon Brando is absolutely unforgettable as the bruised, brooding Terry Malloy, seeking dignity amidst brutality, the bum who becomes a hero. Terry's brother 'Charlie the Gent' is the right hand man of Johnny Friendly, the gangster who runs the local dock workers' union. Anyone who tries to challenge their control or speak out to the Waterfront Crime Commission is brutally murdered.
Terry becomes increasingly uneasy about his involvement with murder and intimidation. He is influenced by the honest and robust priest and the convent-educated Edie, and the battle for control of the union becomes a battle not only of conscience versus cowardice, principle against greed, but also of good versus evil. Terry eventually breaks the conspiracy of silence and 'rats' to the grand jury. His rejection of the taboo of not 'snitching' draws down upon him anger and contempt until he confronts the gangsters head on and, by standing up to them, exposes their weakness.
However, there is a political ambiguity at the heart of On the Waterfront. The director, Elia Kazan, had among the finest left wing credentials in Hollywood. He was part of a milieu of writers including Arthur Miller whose work dealt with social issues. Kazan directed films like A Gentlemen's Agreement (1948) about anti-Semitism, Pinky (1949) about racism, and Viva Zapata (1952) about revolution itself.
In January 1952, however, Kazan was subpoenaed to appear before the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). To the shock of his friends, Kazan gave the names of others who had, like him, joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. But Kazan went further he issued a grovelling statement attempting to justify the politics of all his films and took out a newspaper advert encouraging others to cooperate with the commission. Thus, Kazan became the arch-betrayer, the man who had the stature to take on the witch-hunting and blacklisting and chose instead to collaborate with it. His one time friend and colleague Arthur Miller responded by writing The Crucible, a play about witch-hunts and a man who refuses to give testimony against others.
Seen in this context, On the Waterfront is an allegory for 1950s anti-Communism To speak out Terry risks death and endures painful ostracisation. But in the end, ratting is the only honourable course to take, and the moment when Terry becomes aware of his strength is when he shouts at Johnny Friendly, 'I been ratting on myself all these years and I didn't know it. I'm glad I done what I done.' Thus, On the Waterfront has been seen as a justification for naming names to the authorities.
However, Kazan poses the question of naming names in the most left wing terms possible. Terry does not rat on fellow workers, he rats to save them from the poverty and misery inflicted upon them. This is not ratting for individual advancement, but ratting as individual sacrifice for everyone else.
In making his case for snitching Kazan made a film about how individual courage and principles can win solidarity and challenge tyranny. In an unforgettable climax, the battered and beaten Terry leads the men who refuse to go into work without him into the shipyard and, by this action, the gangsters are smashed and the union returned to the men. All the vivid drama and passion of On the Waterfront focuses on revealing the humanity and dignity in people who are downtrodden and brutalised and how people resist their environment and fight for something better.