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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for On the Waterfront can be found here.
After inadvertantly participating in the murder of fellow longshoreman Joey Doyle, ex-prize fighter turned dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) finds his soncience and begins to take responsibility for his actions. Encouraged by Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and local parish priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), to testify at the Waterfront Crime Commission's hearing against dock racketeering,Terry's change of heart pits him against his own brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and corrupt dockers union boss Michael 'Johnny Friendly' Skelley (Lee J. Cobb).
Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront. It was based on a 24-part series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson. The series, titled "Crime on the Waterfront", won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. Schulberg later novelized his screenplay in a book titled Waterfront (1955). The movie won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture.
An exact year was never specified in the movie. The screenplay was adapted and based upon a series of newspaper articles reporting on corrupt union officials from the post-war era, i.e., late 1940s. However, at the end of the film, cars shown in the parking lot by the docks indicate the time is current to when the film was made .
Terry Malloy is an ex-prizefighter. Makeup was used to make Brando's right eyebrow look scraggly because of all the blows Terry took while fighting. Hence Terry's comment to his brother Charley: 'I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody.'
People have been raising pigeons for thousands of years all around the globe. Pigeon-raising for sport, for fancy, for eggs, and for meat (referred to as 'squab') was a common practice on the rooftops in New York City, although the practice has waned over the past 50 years. Young boys like Tommy (Thomas Handley) could even make money by catching stray birds and returning them to their owners, who might pay them a quarter or more for each bird returned. In the movie, the raising of pigeons served two purposes: (1) it provided a way of luring Joey Doyle up to his rooftop, and (2) it showed the audience that Terry had a soft side, a conscience. Some viewers also point out that the pigeons are symbolic of the dock workers. Early in the film, Terry describes to Edie how hawks perched atop big hotels will occasionally swoop in and snatch a pigeon, a metaphor for the pigeons (like the dock workers) being in constant peril from the hawks (bosses).
Whiskey. A shot of whiskey followed by a glass of beer (chaser) is known as a boilermaker.
It's a longshoreman hook, a tool used by stevedores (dock workers) before containerization. It was used to open crates, snag cargo and remove it from ships, etc.
Terry took the dive under the orders of his brother Charley and Johnny Friendly. Friendly had odds on Terry's opponent winning, so Terry had to lose out of the interests of Friendly and Charlie, even though he could have won it. By doing so, he lost his reputation as an undefeated champ. It's obvious that he never recovered from the loss and was forced to work manual labor for his brother and Johnny.
It's blood, most likely incurred by smashing the glass door when he and Edie were fleeing from the truck that was tailing them down the alley, just before finding Charley's body. It's also been suggested that it could be, at least in part, Charley's blood, symbolizing that Charley's blood is now on Terry's hands.
Word was out that Terry had ratted on Johnny Friendly. Being misguidedly loyal to Friendly, Tommy slaughtered Terry's pigeons in retaliation. 'A pigeon for a pigeon,' as Tommy puts it.
Fear. Anyone who went against the D&D (Deaf and Dumb) policy was killed, and anyone thought to be a supporter was not allowed to work on the docks. The other dock workers were afraid of losing their own jobs and a means of supporting their families.
After testifying against Johnny Friendly, Terry returns to the docks to work, but it is made clear that he's not about to find it there. Terry seeks out Friendly to tell him that he's proud of testifying and finally standing up to him, but Friendly challenges him to a fight. Friendly and his goons beat Terry to within an inch of his life while the other dockworkers watch. Just as they're about to jump in and save Terry, Friendly walks away, leaving Terry laying on the dock. Father Barry and Edie run up to help Terry, while Friendly tries to coerce the other workers to get back to work. The workers refuse to work without Terry. Fr Barry convinces Terry that they have a chance of winning the war if he will but get up and go back to work. In the final scene, Terry gets to his feet and walks over to the union chief. 'All right, let's go to work,' says the chief and leads Terry and the other workers into the warehouse while Johnny Friendly stands alone, screaming 'I'll remember this!' to the workers who have deserted him.
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