Contending with Conscience
By Audrey Stallsmith
Shakespeare’s Hamlet complains that “conscience does make cowards of us all.” Occasionally it might make unwilling heroes instead. I was reminded of that after seeing the film On the Waterfront for the first time. Although it received eight Academy Awards and is considered one of the top movies of all time, it features a protagonist who seems peculiarly dense.
An ex-boxer and brother of a mobster, Terry Malloy hangs out on the fringes of organized crime himself. Although he does occasional favors for his brother’s boss--corrupt union leader Johnny Friendly--in exchange for a cushy job on the waterfront, Terry apparently draws the line at murder.
After he lures a government informer up onto a roof for Friendly and the informer promptly gets thrown off the same roof, Terry has an awakening of sorts. He feebly complains that he should have been told what was really planned, that he’d thought they were just going to lean on the guy a little.
That seems disingenuous of him. Even those of us who know nothing else about organized crime know what is likely to happen to "stool pigeons." We might guess that Terry got hit in the head one too many times during his boxing days. However, I suspect he actually was guilty of something we all do, which I call fuzzying up the edges. In other words, to justify our actions or lack of action we pretend to be dumber than we really are, to know less than we really do.
Terry begins to hang around with Edie, the sister of the victim. He tries to justify himself to her, though she originally doesn’t know about his part in the plot against her brother. That proximity to Edie exposes Terry to the lectures of her priest, who has started a crusade against the corruption on the waterfront. He calls the murders of informers crucifixions, which hundreds of dockworkers tacitly accede to by keeping mum about them.
In the end, Terry gets backed into a corner by his growing love for Edie and by his being increasingly forced to see things as they really are, in cold black and white. The men investigating the corruption also begin to soften up the ex-boxer, probably considering him the weak link in the chain. By constant reference to his boxing career they remind him that Friendly forced him to throw his final fight.
That leads up to Terry’s famous “I coulda been a contender” speech to his brother, Charley the Gent. By then, the audience has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to Charley after he refuses to off his own sibling. However, the Gent’s murder seems to take Terry by surprise too. Perhaps, up until that point, he continued to believe in the gangsters' loyalty to each other.
In the end, it’s difficult to determine how much of Terry’s decision to testify against the union boss actually is attributable to conscience. Some of it probably derives from a thirst for revenge for the deaths of both Charley and Terry’s own career.
Director Elia Kazan reportedly made this movie to justify his own decision to testify against communists in Hollywood. He wanted to make clear that ratting sometimes is the right thing to do. By going along with corrupt friends, after all, we become like them. We sink or rise to the level of those with whom we most associate. In the process, we may pull others with us, and Terry’s former boxing career has made him an object of hero worship to at least one kid in his community.
Terry is lifted up, in a sense, by having people such as Edie and her priest expect more from him than anyone has before. At one point, he says, “I was rattin' on myself all those years. I didn't even know it.”
Some people hold that the movie’s comparatively upbeat ending--the fact that Terry actually survives--makes it unrealistic. The dock workers do seem to change sides too easily, but that could be attributed to their just switching around like lemmings to follow whatever leader appears the strongest at the time. Once Friendly loses his ability to intimidate everybody, he seemingly can’t intimidate anybody.
But at least Terry does become a contender. One who is willing to fight back and draw clear lines around what is and is not acceptable.