I haven’t seen too many films about unions and the mob getting mixed up in some dirty dealings so this made for a fun watch. The union is definitely a powerful thing that you always want to encourage and help grow. Without them employees are easily bullied and exploited all over the place. It’s why I always say it’s better to take a lower paying job that has a union, aka job security over a high paying one where you can be fired at will. It’s just a world of difference in how much you will stress out about things on a day to day basis and in a way life just becomes easier. Of course it’s not a blanket rule and there are many people who enjoy great jobs out of the union. As with almost everything, it will be a case by case basis but on the whole I do support unions. Clearly they do need oversight though or you get an incident like the Waterfront happening behind your back.
The movie starts off by introducing us to Terry who tricks a guy into walking through a fatal ambush. Basically this guy was going to speak with some detectives about the corruption on Waterfront and the mafia wasn’t having that. Terry regrets what he did though because he didn’t realize that the mob was going to murder this guy. He figured they would just rough him up but now he’s in too deep to get out. Basically this segment of the union is run by Johnny who and for all intents and purposes it is the mafia. He chooses who gets to earn money and live an easy life while the others scramble for pennies and go home hungry. Terry and his brother Charley have fairly high positions within the mafia and so they are taken care of but Terry feels guilty all the same.
Edie, the sister of the man who was destroyed resolves to do something about this and she gets Father Barry to help her out with this. Together they aim to take a stand and get someone to cooperate with the police in outing the mobsters. This does put them in the crosshairs of the villains though so Terry is going to have to make a choice and soon. If he stands by and lets them get murdered then it is as if he did the deed himself and if he helps them out then he may die. Time is no longer on his side.
I think Terry was a bit naïve in believing that the mob would spare the first guy in the opening scene though. From the mob’s perspective he’s a squealer and no matter what kind of gang you go to, that is obviously frowned upon. They were always going to use him as an example and I suppose in this case Terry just didn’t have enough street smarts to recognize that. He wisens up a bit as the film goes on but even by the end he didn’t always seem to be very quick on the uptake. Near the end of the film his brother Charley tries to convince him to confirm that he won’t talk to the detectives and Terry keeps saying that he is unsure. He doesn’t realize that this is a final plea to him because Terry is slated to be destroyed and it has to be spelled out for him.
Throughout the film Terry seems to underestimate the level of trouble that he’s in and it just strikes me as a bit odd. He doesn’t seem like someone who would be that sheltered from the mob and the cruel realities of life. I guess in a way his brother Charley did a good job of shielding him from the worst elements. Ultimately Charley is a villain here particularly as he knew exactly what he was doing the whole time. Still, I can appreciate that he looked out for his brother all the way to the end and was willing to sacrifice himself to buy more time.
Meanwhile Johnny made for a solid villain. He’s the kind of guy who rules through fear and never forgets how he rose to the top. He’s stayed in shape and is still quite strong. He’s not going to be taking down a professional boxer or anything like that but against the average joe you have to believe that he would do pretty well. He’s good at baiting Terry (You also just blame Terry for being a bit too reactive at times) and it’s easy to see why he managed to climb to the top. Johnny may not be a good guy but he knows his way around the streets.
Barry ends up doing a good job here as well since he puts himself in a lot of danger as well and doesn’t waver. He’s willing to go the distance on this one and so even when some people die, you know that he’s not going to give up. In those days as a member of the church he would have been in 0 danger if he had just stayed within the church. So it was courageous of him to go out there and really risk his life like that. I’d say he was the best character here.
Then you have Edie who was also proactive in doing her best to get to the bottom of this and really try to avenge her brother. She attends the meetings and really gets the ball rolling. Without her kicking things off it is extremely likely that nothing would have been done. She has to take a whole lot of credit in getting things set up here.
One weak area of the film is the romance though. You just can’t convince me that someone would fall for the man who assisted in murdering her brother. Yes we know it was an accident but even so I just don’t see how you move past that. Maybe after a lot of years or something but short term it’s just not going to happen. That’s such a personal thing that you can’t simply get over it. Nah the film should have cut the romance angle out since it’s not like this was really going to enhance the story in any way.
My one issue narratively is in the climax how nobody helps Terry. The whole group in the union feel extremely soft here. You’re telling me that after the boss has finally been pretty much dethroned and you’re at the end of the race, nobody is going to help out? Surely there would be either enough resentment or comradery to get one of them to jump in and land some serious damage. Terry was beating Johnny one on one and only lost because it became a 4 against 1. There were dozens and dozens of other workers watching from a very close distance. They should have jumped in to help. It was such a bad scene here because it instantly makes the ending lose a lot of punch since they didn’t help out. When the chips were down Terry was alone and that goes against the whole ending where everyone is in solidarity. It would have meant so much more if they helped him take down the attackers and then walked in with him.
Throughout the film it felt like they were starting to gain some confidence too. That they all had enough and were willing to fight back but I guess that wasn’t to be. In the end the fear Johnny engrained in them ran far too deep and that’s unfortunate. Would have been nice if the detectives showed up or something to lead him away in handcuffs too since he lost the court case. There are a lot of charges you could throw at him at that point and compound them into the previous verdict but the detectives basically vanished early on.
Now there was one scene that did hurt the film near the end and it comes out of nowhere. There is this random subplot where Terry likes raising a bunch of pigeons as a side gig and naturally it ends with all of them being murdered by some psychotic kids. They should definitely be in jail and got off way too easy here. It’s pretty rough because they murdered a whole flock of birds here and suffer absolutely no penalty. It’s another way of showing how Terry burned all of his bridges by going against the mob but you didn’t have to include this plot at all. It’s definitely the most tragic moment in the film and the sheer body count is also astounding.
Overall, On The Waterfront is a very engaging movie even if it did lose a lot of momentum in the end. You’ve got a solid script here and a good atmosphere in the background. The scene where the villains call Terry out was really good because you knew that he could die if he went down there and yet he had to because his brother was being used as bait. You can also see how stressful it is to be within a gang because you can be in their good graces one moment and then they turn on you in the blink of an eye. The best way to survive is to simply avoid them from the start. Part of the dilemma here was that some people really had no other opportunities which is why Johnny lasted for so long. There was no real witness protection with how everyone was getting bumped off so it made for a very negative cycle. It’s definitely good that Edie and Barry were here to close out the situation once and for all.