Many times in life we quote dialog from a film without ever really knowing where it originated. The line, “I coulda been a contender” came from On the Watefront but many people might assume it’s from another movie featuring boxing such as Rocky or Raging Bull. No, the quote did indeed come from this film, a story not about boxing but about a man who coulda been more, but instead must weigh the heavy choices life has given him.
Terry (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker who gets all the cushy jobs because his brother Charlie (Rob Steiger) works beside the Union Leader Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry unwittingly helps to set up a fellow dockworker named Joey (Ben Wager) to be killed. Afterward, he starts to bond with Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). As Edie starts to work with a priest named Father Barry (Karl Malden) to try and get better representation of the dockworkers Terry starts to wonder what is right, where his loyalties lie, and if he shouldn’t come forward with the information he has about Joey’s death.
The actors absolutely shine here. The entire cast delivers an incredible performance, portraying characters with a stake in what’s happening in the world around them. Brando’s portrayal of a man who just trying to make a living but keeps being reminded of his greatness starts slow but grows steadily. Cobb displays power and authority with every scene he is in, embodying the look and feel of what someone with ruthless power would look like. Malden’s performance as the priest who knows he needs to truly serve his people by getting into the thick of it and leaving the safety of his church is truly moving. Saint’s work as Edie as she tries to find the truth behind her brother’s death while helping her father and the others get the fair treatment they deserve shines and even makes you wonder if she isn’t too good for Terry.
The story of a man dealing with the weight of his conscious is the drive of the picture, and a very personal theme for director Elia Kazan. Terry struggles, torn between his loyalties for Friendly and his brother and wanting to tell the truth about Joey’s murder, to what he can ultimately provide for Edie. Charlie doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Terry as the Union members notice him grow closer to Edie and Father Barry and fear Terry may go to the crime commission with what he knows.This leads to the infamous scene between the two of them where the classic “I coulda been a contender” line is uttered. Charlie is trying to remind Terry of all the good his influence has done for him, but Terry is quick to remind him how he sacrificed his boxing career by taking dives when he was told to do so. The quote resonates as it talks about the success he could have had and the bitter reality he is now faced with because of the decisions he made to help those he cared about.
The film also focuses on the hardships stemming from bucking the system and standing up to corruption, and how hard the road can be. Later in film, after Terry makes a decision on what is best, he’s shunned for his efforts. His friends no longer wish to associate with him and he is even scorned by a youth who looked up to him. Despite his choices, Terry knows he cannot run away from his problems and instead heads to work the next day, just as always, knowing those in power hold all the cards. It is a bitter sight to see, but shows the fortitude a person can have when they can’t stand for being pushed around anymore.
On the Waterfront reminds us of a lesson many forget in this new era of movie making; It takes heart and soul. Good actors willing to give the best performance possible and deliver a product which will truly stay with someone and make them feel for the characters on screen and the struggles they endure. This movie was showered with praise and awards for the work which went into it and earned every bit of this reception.
This film was presented as part of TCM: Big Screen Classics showings through Fathom Events. It was presented in its original aspect ratio and in the original black and white format.