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Film Review: On the Waterfront

Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.



In 1954, Elia Kazan released , On the Waterfront, based on the 1948 newspaper article series "Crime on the Waterfront," by Malcolm Johnson. Starring Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Pat Henning, John F. Hamilton, Ben Wagner, James Westerfield, Fred Gwynne, Leif Erickson, and Martin Balsam, the film grossed $9.6 million at the Box Office.


Terry Malloy, former prizefighter, is employed as a dockworker for the Union-boss, Johnny Friendly. Inadvertently, he participates in the murder of another dockworker who planned to expose Friendly’s illegal activities. Comforting the dead man’s sister, Edie, he meets a priest who urges him to expose Friendly before someone else dies.



A great film with fascinating characters, On the Waterfront does very well in handling said characters and their struggles. Terry, for instance, has an interesting conflict where he works on the docks, but used to be a promising boxer until he took a dive because his brother instructed him to on Friendly’s orders. Throughout the movie, Terry is struggling with whether or not he does the right thing this time or takes another dive and just continues to work on the docks with no problems. This is reflected in the scene where he talks with his brother in the car. If he hadn’t have taken that dive, he could have gone places, been a contender for the title, and would have been respected. In losing the fight that he should have easily won though, he became someone he hates. It’s a struggle that can resonate with quite a few people as many have something in their past they wish they could have changed and constantly think back to it while pondering a current choice that needs to be made. It’s notable that this time, he makes the right choice and becomes respected for it.

Then there’s Johnny Friendly, which really is an ironic name for someone who has people killed because they want to expose his corruption. He’s quite a good villain as he runs the union while at his bar, instructing his cronies to do his dirty work for him. He seems nigh untouchable at first and he is because to no one wants to risk being killed for getting on his bad side. Then Terry decides to do the right thing and comes after him. It results in a fight between the two where Friendly shows how much of a coward he is by calling in his guards to break the fight up. It also shows how talented a fighter Terry used to be in his heyday; he would have won had the guards not intervened. Further, this fight demonstrates how much restraint Terry has as he was dead set on killing Friendly earlier before Father Barry makes him realize the best course of action would be testifying.

Father Barry deserves quite a bit of recognition as he immediately makes the decision to go after Friendly and his corruption from the beginning of the film. His dedication to doing what’s right is so great that he likens everyone who won’t do anything to those who stood around and mocked Jesus at the crucifixion. Furthermore, not only is he the one that convinces Terry and another to testify, but he doesn’t ever back down, even when the man before Terry is also killed. As stated above, he’s a tremendous voice of reason, driving Terry to do the honorable and right thing instead of taking the easy way out. He's also not afraid to resort to drastic measures, seen as he punches Terry halfway across the room.

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Awards won

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Marlon Brando)
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint)
  • Best Director
  • Best Writing, Story and Screenplay
  • Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Black-and-White
  • Best Film Editing

Golden Globe Awards

  • Best Motion Picture - Drama
  • Best Actor - Drama (Marlon Brando)
  • Best Director
  • Best Cinematography - Black and White


  • Best Foreign Actor (Marlon Brando)

Bambi Awards

  • Film - International
  • Third Place - Best Actor - International (Marlon Brando)

Directors Guild of America Awards

  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures

International Film Music Critics Awards

  • Best Archival Release of an Existing Score - Re-Release or Re-Recording

Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon Awards

  • Best Foreign Film

National Board of Review Awards

  • Best Film
  • Top Ten Films

National Film Preservation Board, USA

  • National Film Registry

New York Film Critics Circle Awards

  • Best Film
  • Best Director
  • Best Actor (Marlon Brando)
  • Second Place - Best Actress - Eva Marie Saint

Venice Film Festival Awards

  • OCIC Award
  • Pasinetti Award
  • Silver Lion

Writers Guild of America Awards

  • Best Written American Drama

Nominated for

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Lee J. Cobb
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Karl Malden)
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Rod Steiger)
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

BAFTA Awards

  • Best Film from any Source
  • Best Promising Newcomer to Film (Eva Marie Saint)

Venice Film Festival Awards

  • Golden Lion

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