Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is widely considered a masterpiece of American cinema. Examining the mise en scène in the film, viewers are struck by the authenticity of the settings, the understated power of the costuming, and the powerful staging of the action.
The story is set in a gritty working-class city in 1950s New Jersey. The opening scene shows a hulking freight boat in the harbor, and the unimpressive waterfront shack that is, ironically, the seat of power for the local mob. They sit below sea level, reflecting the low level of their morality.
The decay of the waterfront is sharply contrasted with the rooftop, where the reluctant hero, Terry Malloy, goes to escape the dirty, corrupted parts of his life. He is “humanized” by the care he gives to his pigeon coop full of birds. From here, the city below is perpetually obscured by fog, and Terry's gentle side is revealed.
Another important space in the film is the public park that stands in front of the Catholic Church, where a fence separates the people from the water and the promise of the Manhattan skyline. It is in that space where Terry Malloy is taught to be more compassionate—first in an encounter with Edie, and later in a confrontation with the priest. It is through this fence that the priest watches Terry confess his part in the murder of Joey to Edie, perhaps the first true act of penance in Terry’s confused life.
Props also play an important role. The hooks that the dockworkers carry around with them become a motif in the film—first when they are looking for work, then when Charley the Gent’s dead body is hung from a hook like a carcass, and finally when the beaten Terry staggers, hook in hand, from the depths of the shack to the doors of the shipyard and his own liberation.
Costumes and Make-up
The expensive suits worn by Charley are sharply contrasted with the worn-out clothes of the dock workers. One symbol of this inequality is Joey Doyle’s jacket, which gets passed around to Doogan after Joey’s death, and from Edie to Terry after Doogan’s death. It is Joey’s jacket which Terry zips up and wears as he climbs his way out of his disgrace at the end of the film.
Edie’s costuming is also highly symbolic. In the earliest scenes, she is dressed in black with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. After her first flirtatious encounter with Terry, she is still wearing black, but a white collar—mirroring the white collar of the priest—is poking out from her jacket as she drinks her first beer. At this point, her hair has been let down and is pinned back in barrettes. Later, whenTerry breaks into her apartment to demand that she admit she loves him, he finds her with her hair hanging loose and nothing on but a white slip.
While Terry is flirting with Edie on the walk home from the church meeting, she drops her glove. Terry picks it up, plays with it, and stretches it onto his burly right hand. Edie stands at a distance from him, wearing only her left glove, her other hand bare, tentatively reaching out for her other glove. Finally, he reaches his hand out, and she pulls the glove off and walks away. The impact of his gesture profound, as shyness and desire are both revealed.
One important effect used in the film is the variation of levels between characters. For example, Edie is often filmed from above whomever she encounters. She is usually standing on a higher platform, leaning down across a table, standing on higher ground. Also, the camera tends to capture and hold Edie’s face longer than any other character’s, except Terry’s after he is transformed at the end of the film.
When on the roof—his refuge—Terry is always separated from other people by chicken wire. He does not let anybody in until the end of the film, when allows Edie to enter after he has redeemed himself.
The film is full of religious imagery. The roof itself is covered with cross-shaped antennas, which seem to hang above Edie’s beatific face, a Virgin Mary on the wall of a chapel. Also, after the priest gives his political sermon in the hull of the ship, he and Pop are “raised up” on the platform with the body of the “crucified” Doogan. Finally, when Terry, with his bloodied face, “rises again” and walks up the dock to his salvation, the religious symbolism is complete.
On the Waterfront is a remarkable film, grounded in realism but ultimately soaring to idealism. In the film, the mise en scène is greatly impacted by the spiritual dimensions of the story, and the end effect is almost a parabolic.