On the Waterfront: Singing for Redemption

In 1952, Elia Kazan took the stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a “friendly witness,” where he gave the names of contemporaries who had been part of the Communist Party in New York at the same time he had. He later commented on the matter, stating that he did not feel it was worth losing his career as a filmmaker by refusing to name the people he did. He had fallen out with those people and the party. In addition, the people he named had already been named, or soon would be, by others.

Many disagreed with Kazan’s logic and he endured a great deal of flak for his decision. Two years later, Kazan directed On the Waterfront, a film about a man who named names, despite intense pressure not to, but, by doing so, did the right thing. Many have called On the Waterfront Kazan’s attempt at redemption, and rightly so. The heroic informer is contrary to the image of Kazan that was, at the time, apparent, and it was the most meaningful and effective way that Kazan had of striking back.

Terry Malloy, like Kazan, was part of the group he was called to testify against. Kazan was a member of the Communist Party during the Great Depression. Malloy was in with Johnny Friendly from a young age. Both were wronged by the organization they served. Kazan was put on trial by the party and stigmatized. Malloy was denied the chance to be recognized as a great boxer. Both originally planned not to talk, but both eventually did, thinking that it was the best course of action. There is much the same in the story of both men. There are also many differences, however; and the film, I believe, is more than Kazan’s redemption plea.

Organized crime within Unions was rampant at the time. At this point in history, almost all American factories were unionized, and unions had discovered they could use force to control workers or “convince” them to unionize. In return, union workers had discovered much the same thing. Organized crime was profiting from union strife. It was time that “something” be done about it. Kazan was the right person for the job. A skilled director, Kazan would be able to turn the film into something memorable. Furthermore, in light of his recent testimony to HUAC, the majority of the stir would be on whether the film was able to redeem Kazan and would not invoke the ire of the union bosses to the extent that the film under another director might have.

On the Waterfront was shot on location, and it was this choice that contributed significantly to the quality of the film. Shooting on location lent the film an authenticity that could not have been archived on a sound stage. The sounds of the city, and the docks were almost always in the background, the cars passing behind scenes did not end-up unusually sparse or staged as often happens; and the sets, the tenements in particular, looked sufficiently run-down and grungy. When Terry responds to the calls that his brother needs him, and goes out into the alley, the viewer see the tenements rising on top of each other as they have for decades, the worn-down fences, the laundry, the slippery pavement. That scene would not have been as effective if they had tried to recreate it on a set or chosen not to literally run their actors down with a truck. In addition, when down on the wharf or on the roofs of the tenements the use of on location shooting is also important. If those sets had been recreated in the studio with painted backdrops depicting the distance, it would have been noticeable and distracting. The art of convincingly faking a city on a canvas is one I doubt was ever perfected. The end product of the on-set location is a film that never appears staged, never appears built. It appears to be the story it tells.

The symbols in this film also play an important role. The first and most notable symbol is that of birds. Throughout the film, there are references to birds. Both Joey and Terry keep pigeons, and it is a pigeon that “calls” Joey to his doom. Following Joey’s death, a joke is made that Joey knew how to sing but not how to fly. They are referring to the idea that when a member of the union talks, they are called a canary and said to have “sung.” After Terry talks, Tommy goes up to his pigeon coop and wrings the neck of every single pigeon. He then throws a dead pigeon at Terry exclaiming: “a pigeon for a pigeon!” He thinks that by “singing,” Terry has betrayed them and is no better than a common pigeon. Terry is a pigeon, but not in the way the Tommy means. In the beginning of the film, Terry explains that pigeons are innocents. Whenever a hawk spots a pigeon it will swoop down and snatch it up. He keeps his coup of pigeons because he wants to protect them from the hawks. In the film, the union bosses are the hawks and the longshoremen, including Terry, are the pigeons. The union bosses will swoop down on anyone out of line or anyone who appears close to talking. By talking, and thus bringing down the bosses, Terry protects the other longshoremen from them.

The hook is another potent symbol. The hook is the longshoremen’s tool of trade. It distinguishes them from the higher-ups – the same higher-ups that are constantly pushing them down and hurting them. Coincidentally, the men wear these hooks around their necks – almost like being on a gallows. The hook, like the pier, is almost always present, a sign that their work defines them and affects every aspect of their day to day life. It isn’t until Terry goes down to the wharf to “get his rights” that the hook changes. Terry removes it from his neck and uses it almost like a weapon to draw Jonny Friendly out of the shack. It is then that the longshoremen’s position changes.

Joey’s jacket becomes a mark. It is Joey who first has the guts to stand up and “sing,” but he is killed before he has a chance to. KO is given the jacket upon Joey’s death and it is he who is next to stand. After KO is killed, Edie gives Terry the Jacket. It isn’t until he decides to speak, however, that he begins wearing the jacket. It is Joey’s jacket that Terry zips up before going to “get his rights.”

The fences are the last symbol I would like to point out. In all the most important scenes of the film, fences, generally tall pointed, are prevalent. The fences both hold the characters, and Terry in particular, back but they also protect them.

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