On the Waterfront is one of the most powerful films of the 20th century. Elia Kazan, the director of the movie, perfects every aspect that can be put into the mise-en-scene to make this movie as moving as it is. The actors and actresses put their heart and soul into every single line to make us feel every struggle and pain the characters feel. All of this comes together to create one of the greatest films of all time.
The mise-en-scene in On the Waterfront comes together flawlessly to make the movie very realistic and emotive. The setting of the movie is extremely important to the overall effect of the movie; rather than use a set and create a fake shipyard, for example, Kazan makes use of a genuine shipyard in Hoboken, New Jersey, and uses normal clothes as costumes. Dark, dimly lit scenes, such as the scene where Terry and Edie are running down the alleyway while being chased by a truck, are made especially powerful by their lighting. By making the scene have a low key light, Kazan creates a high contrast with lots of shadows that heightens the ominous mood. The focus is placed on the headlights from the car chasing them, creating a lot of suspense for the audience, until the car passes and the focus is immediately shifted onto Terry’s brother Charlie, hanging on the wall. All of these emotions are enhanced throughout the film by the dramatic musical score by Leonard Bernstein, which establishes feelings of suspense, to feelings of achievement at the end of the film. Kazan creates the perfect atmosphere to literally “set the stage” for the film.
The dialogue in this film also adds to the true emotions and realism of the film. The phrases chosen in the script are period accurate; the characters use normal slang and language rather than specialized fancy dialogue. Soon after Joey is introduced to the audience by Terry saying that he had one of his birds, Joey gets thrown off the roof. He gets called a canary, which means that he testified and “sang like a canary” against the corrupt bosses. He told on them, but “…he couldn’t fly.” In the next scene, Mr. Friendly (who has a very ironic name, but there’s no room to go into that right now,) calls the late Joey a “cheese-eater,” implying that he was a rat. This kind of intimidation and exploitation of anyone who followed their conscience and did the right thing was the reason why so many workers kept “D&D,” and acted like there was nothing wrong with what was going on.
Pigeons were especially important and symbolic in the movie. They were used to symbolize the workers who informed the juries on the corrupt actions of the bosses. These workers were called stool pigeons, who stooled on their “friends.” Before the church meeting, Charlie explains, “Stooling is when you rat on your friends. Johnny wants a favor, don’t think about it, just do it.” The workers were trained to keep deaf and dumb when it came to the bosses’ actions; since it didn’t directly affect them, they were trained not to say a word so nothing would happen to them. The pigeons also have another symbolic value. They are waiting to fly and know that they are meant to fly away, but they are kept up in a cage and trained not to do what they are meant to do, just as the workers know what is right, but are trained not to rat on anyone.
The scene in the car with Terry and Charlie is one of the most famous movie scenes of the 20th century. The close up camera angles capture Terry and Charlie’s expressions, while the sad music adds to the heart wrenching emotion of the scene. Charlie insists for Terry to take the job and keep quiet to make decent money. Meanwhile, Terry knows it is the right thing to do to tell the jury about the corrupt actions of Friendly. Charlie urges his brother to just take the job and ignore what is right to keep a steady life for himself, but when the camera uses a close up shot to just place Terry’s face into it, we see Terry’s emotions as the light strings play a minor arrangement and we hear his story about how he could’ve been something if his brother had encouraged him to fight for himself, literally and symbolically.
Whiskey and beer have important significance in the film. When workers died for doing what they believed was right, they were acting as martyrs. Jesus died so that we could be saved from our sins, and shed his blood to give us freedom and eternal life. The drinks symbolize freedom and communion. When Charlie is found dead, Terry and the priest share a beer, symbolizing drinking the blood of Jesus, and symbolizing the freedom that Charlie died for. K.O. says that all he wants is some whiskey in the beginning of the film, and is later crushed by cases of it, ironically, as if he is being crushed by the freedom he craved and went after.
The music, cinematography, dialogue, and emotion that come into play in the film all join together to create a masterpiece that became one of the most iconic films of the 20th century.