5 Plot Point Breakdown: On the Waterfront (1954)

By Xiaofeng Chen · September 15, 2014


Screenplay Genre: Crime / Love / Drama

Movie Time: 107 minutes

New York Port is the biggest and fattest port in the world. Workers on the waterfront survive thousands of longshoremen. But the mobs: Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his lackeys control the union. They exploit and oppress the workers, extort the harbor master and take a cut from everything. Everybody on the waterfront knows the rule of D&D: Be Deaf and Dumb if you want to live long. But worker Joey Doyle wouldn’t follow it and stands out to expose Johnny’s crimes. He thinks he can fight Johnny, but he is wrong:


Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the brother of Johnny’s underling Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger ) is sent to lure Joe out from his home so Johnny’s men can “teach him a lesson.” Terry shouts at Joe while at his building and tells him that he got a pigeon of him and is delivering it to him on the roof. Joe is cheated and gets on the roof. Johnny’s men have been waiting for him there. Terry sees the lesson they teach him: it is “gravity.” Joe falls down the roof and gets killed. (3:38) Terry is shocked and regrets for what he did.

2. LOCK IN (End of Act One)

Father Barry (Karl Malden) calls the believers to the church and asks them who killed Joe Doyle. Everybody knows who did it but nobody will stand up before the Virgin Mary. Terry is sent to the church as a spy by Johnny. He sees Joe’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) there. Then Johnny’s men attack the church. In the chaos Terry saves Edie from the mobs and takes her out of the church. (25:28)

Edie has a grudge about her brother’s death. Terry falls in love with Edie and develops a sense of guilt with her. Worker J. Dugan (Pat Henning Timothy) is persuaded by Father Barry and going to Crime Commission to accuse Johnny. One day when he is unloading whiskey from a ship, the cargo falls on his head from the hoist and kills him.


Terry confesses to Father Barry. Barry tells him that the right person he should confess to is Edie. Terry does what Father says. Edie knows the truth from Terry, breaks down and leaves him. (63:34) Johnny feels he is losing control of Terry and wants to get rid of him. Terry’s brother Charlie strongly oppose it. He goes with Terry, tells him to be careful and gives him a gun.

Terry goes with Edie, tells her he can’t live without her and gets her forgiveness. Then they hear somebody shout at Terry down from the building that his brother wants to see him. Terry and Edie go down the building. In an alley a truck rushes to them. They avoid from the truck, and find a dead body being hanged on the wall by a hook: it is Charley!

4. MAIN CULMINATION (End of Act Two)

Terry goes crazy. He runs to Johnny’s bar with Charley’s gun and waits for him there. Father Barry comes and stops him from doing this silly thing. He tells him the best place to defeat Johnny is in the court. Terry sues Johnny at the Crime Commission. Johnny is then faced with big trouble – like a drowned rat. (90:38)

Terry broke the rule of the waterfront. Everybody is steers clear of him, as if avoiding a ghost. Edie wants to leave this place with him, but Terry chooses to stay and fight for the rights: not only his rights, but the rights of all the longshoremen.


n the morning Terry appears on the waterfront in the coat which belonged to Joe and Dugan. Johnny’s foreman declares that everybody has to work that day but Terry. Terry condemns Johnny in public and challenges him. They have a fight and Terry is beat out by Johnny’s men. But the workers see Terry fighting for them and all turn to his side. They push Johnny into the water and won’t go to work. Everybody is looking at Terry. Terry gets up on his feet and staggers to the waterfront with his hook. All the longshoremen follow him behind (107:00). A new leader of workers has risen!

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