Motifs • (noun) a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work. • a distinctive and recurring form, shape, figure, etc., in a design, as in a painting or on wallpaper. • a dominant idea or feature: the profit motif of free enterprise. • Often, motifs are employed by film directors to link the dominant themes in the story or to learn more about the characters. As the audience, we need to ‘read’ and ‘decode’ these to ascertain their symbolism or meaning. • When analysing the various motifs within ‘On the Waterfront’, consider what film techniques Elia Kazan utilises in order to portray these.
The Rooftop • Terry spends much of his ‘alone time’ on the rooftop of the tenement building. What does he do there? Why does he do this? What does it represent to him? • What other character spent time on the rooftop doing the same activities? How are these characters similar? • How does the rooftop contrast with the scenes of the same neighbourhood at street level? • What music is playing when Terry is on the rooftop? What does this represent? How does this compliment our understanding of the place and its importance? • If the rooftop is a retreat, is it safe from any danger or completely removed from the ‘real world’? Give examples.
Birds • Pigeon = someone who is easily duped, a sucker • Terry has an affinity for the pigeons, “they got it made.” In what way is Terry’s life similar to that of these birds? Think about where they live and what they are trained to do. • There are several references to characters being “canaries” or “stool pigeons” throughout the film. This was colloquial language used at the time to label someone who informed to the police. The bird motif is reinforced by Tillio, who jokes “maybe he could sing, but he couldn’t fly” after the death of Joey Doyle. • “This city is full of hawks”. Why is Terry afraid of hawks? How do they contrast with the vulnerability of pigeons? What do they represent?
Christianity • Apart from the obvious references to Christianity (via Father Barry and the religious schooling of Edie) there are various Christian images or religious iconography displayed throughout the film. The opening scenes introduce this motif where we see a boat on the waterfront complete with a small mast that resembles a cross. • Other examples include: Edie cradling Joey’s corpse like Mary cradled Jesus’ body, Father Barry rising out of the cargo hold with Dugan’s body as if ascending to heaven, and Charley’s corpse hanging by a hook, all of which are visual references to Christ’s body on the cross. • The concept of having ‘blood on ones hands’ and the ultimate redemption through confession is signified through Terry and his struggles with his conscience. • Edie reminds Terry of the Christian values of brotherhood: “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else? I mean, isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?” • In what way could Terry be compared to a Christ-like figure?
Christianity • Father Barry serves as a Christian activist, reminding the Longshoreman that their silence is in itself a sin. As he speaks, crucifix-like shadows are cast on the wall behind him as Dugan’s body lay at his feet like a sacrificial lamb. • In what way is Father Barry’s speech after Dugan’s death like a church sermon and/or eulogy? • Father Barry often compares the deaths of innocent longshoremen and crucifixions, thus explicitly referencing their martyrdom. Joey Doyle and Dugan both died for the ‘sins’ of the longshoremen.
Coats/Jackets • The heavy clothing worn by the men in the film suggest the practicalities of having appropriate warmth against the bitter New York cold, but also symbolise wealth and status. • Contrast Terry’s clothing (and that of the Longshoreman) with that of Johnny Friendly’s, Charley’s and the other of Friendly’s thugs. • Joey’s jacket is particularly significant. Who are the two characters that the jacket is passed on to? What do these three men have in common? • Charley is always seen in a buttoned up camel coat. What is the significance of his attire? • The men from the Crime Commission also wear long coats. Why do you think they have this resemblance, even superficially, to Friendly and his gang?
Coats/Jackets • Although Father Barry also wears along coat, he reminds the men that he is a lot more than “a gravy train rider with a turn-around collar” . The fact that the men pelt his coat with food remind us that, despite his long coat, he is far removed from Friendly and his gang. • Film historian Leo Braudy wrote in his analysis of the film that “clothes are a kind of armour, not just against the cold that suffuses the film, but also against other sorts of vulnerability. Big Mac, the pier boss, zips up his jacket just before giving the signal to drop the crates of Scotch on ‘Kayo’ Dugan, and Father Barry zips up Terry’s jacket as he persuades him to make the walk that ends the film. Although almost everyone in the film talks about “guts” the visual message, like the stiff upper lip of D ‘n D, is to maintain a manly surface, keep the leaking wounds invisibly inside”.
Gloves • Gloves are prominently seen twice in the film, both times they are clutched by characters in nervousness. • Edie’s pure white glove is dropped and retrieved by Terry, who plays with it casually – as though he is toying with her, attempting to loosen her up, invade her space. The fact that he inserts his hand into the glove is one on level an innocent gesture, both playful, friendly and unconscious – but also hints at potential sexual intimacy. • What is the significance of Edie’s glove being white? • The second time gloves appear is in the cab scene, where Charley takes off his gloves and fidgets with them. • Considering Charley is mostly seen buttoned up, what does the removal of the glove suggest? Consider his motivations and conflicts at this stage of the film.
Water • The Longshoreman’s Union Office is located in a floating shack on the waterfront. What does this location and the appearance of the building itself signify? • The final confrontation between Terry and Johnny Friendly is located precariously at the water’s edge on a wooden rafting – as though each were potentially walking the plank to their demise. Friendly later ends up in the water when assaulted by Pop Doyle. • Analysis from Spark Notes website: The Hudson River separates Hoboken, New Jersey, from New York City. Manhattan may as well be a thousand miles away, since the Manhattan life the longshoremen imagine is so different from daily life on the waterfront. The river is a border, an edge that the longshoremen will never be able to cross. The Hudson brings in the ships, and the edge of the Hudson is where the Longshoreman’s Local Union runs its corrupt operations. Across the Hudson, the Empire State Building looms like the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, distant and strange. It represents dreams and a different life, yet it’s always glimpsed through a fog.
Gates / Fences / Barbed Wire/Spikes • Many scene are framed around images of fencing, gates, wire and metal spikes. This is a very deliberate example of Kazan and Schulberg’s choices to reflect the characters predicaments within the mise-en-scene of the film. • Terry lures Joey to his death from behind a row of metal spikes. What does this suggest/represent? • Terry Malloy and the Longshoreman (and to a lesser extent, Father Barry and Charley Malloy) are entrapped and caged. What has caused Terry to feel so confined? What must he do to liberate himself from these shackles? • What other scenes display Terry behind confines of bars/wire? • View the scene in which Terry finally decides to confess his knowledge of Joey’s death to Edie. Map his movements to see how he begins the scene behind a fence, and walks around and out of its confines.
Smoke / Fog / Darkness • Black and white cinematography - a deliberate choice Kazan made to add to the gritty realism and the bleak, dirty and corrupt waterfront. As opposed to the glossy ‘Golden Years of Hollywood’ type of films from the same era, OTW has more of a documentary feel. The newsreels of the time were still black and white. This choice also hints at the ‘film noir’ genre – a style of film that usually explored criminality within a cold, dark and sinister underworld. • Consider the smoky, hazy atmosphere. The fog is first glimpses when Terry leaves Friendly’s bar after Joey Doyle’s death. There are man other examples of Terry walking among smoke or fog. How is this a visual representation of Terry’s mind?