The brooding, inarticulate protagonist of On the Waterfront nurses a seething bundle of contradictory emotions for most of the film. Terry doesn’t particularly care about work and instead devotes his dreams, energy, and care to his racing pigeons. After being pushed around for too long, however, he realizes that his actions have definite, provable results. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Terry is key to our understanding his character. Brando shuffles around and affects such mannerisms as looking away from the person with whom he’s speaking, putting his hand nervously behind his head, or stuffing his hands in his pockets. Often, his focus seems misplaced, leaving us to wonder what’s going on deep inside his mind. For example, he plays with his jacket’s zipper while he learns what happened to Joey Doyle, and he fiddles with a piece of dust after Charlie pulls a gun in the cab. Malloy has a lot going on in the parts of his mind that we are never privy to.
As the film progresses, Brando’s physicality shifts, which indicates a shift in Malloy’s priorities and objectives. In Malloy’s final stand on the docks, when he wears Joey Doyle’s jacket, he stands more confidently, with few nervous gestures. He looks around him calmly, not fearfully as he would have earlier. He talks instead of whines. His gum-chewing is cockier. His burgeoning independence, rooted in a complex decision, infiltrates his whole being. Terry’s transformation is not wholly self-induced, but rather brought on by a string of revelations and events, including his misunderstood role in Joey Doyle’s death, his growing awareness of Edie’s love and his love for her, Father Barry’s pressing care, and the murders of Dugan and Charlie. There are so many factors working on Terry’s character, in fact, that we’re left wondering how much of a “choice” Terry Malloy really has after all.
Edie’s nearly angelic soul helps Terry to reclaim his conscience. Her restraint, modesty, and acceptance open up a new place in Terry’s rough-and-tumble heart. Sexuality is crucial in her involvement with Malloy, and their attraction grows, in part, because they are physical opposites: Malloy is a brawny former boxer and she’s a polite church girl.
Edie’s loyalty to her brother is the driving motivation for all her actions. Were it not for her steadfastness, Pops Doyle would have succeeded in sending her home, and the thugs of the gang would have succeeded in intimidating her. To Malloy, she represents a way out. Not happy with the few paths open to him on the waterfront, he could start a new life, with Edie, somewhere else. Malloy tests her genuine naïveté and faith in the good will of others when he tells her of his involvement in Joey’s death. But at the end of the film she has reclaimed her faith in humanity, and she remains almost purely good to the end.
Though his behavior changes throughout the film, Father Barry remains steadfast to one overriding mission: administering the word of God by advocating peaceful resistance. Early on, the priest appears well intentioned but of no practical use, as when he tells Edie she can find him in the church if she needs him. After visiting the docks and speaking with the workers who don’t get jobs that day, he begins a slow process of toughening. In many ways, his development parallels Terry’s—he becomes active rather than passive and begins to acknowledge his own potential effectiveness. Father Barry’s increased cigarette smoking represents his thickening skin. He affirms his faith in his mission to guide the longshoreman with a peaceful hand when he delivers his famous “Sermon on the Docks” over Dugan’s body, withstanding banana and beer can attacks to deliver his message and demonstrate the good of his word. Despite the presence and importance of Father Barry, religion does not play an overt role in the film’s crucial events.
Once Johnny Friendly has power, he has to maintain it at all costs, and he acts out whenever someone or something challenges that power. His position as the leader of the Longshoreman Local Union requires daily muscle-flexing. In a passionate speech he gives at the bar the first time we meet him, Friendly describes his past life. Clawing for scraps and fighting to get by on the streets since his youth, an organization like the union became his only option for self-preservation. Money and power are his motivations now. When a man is on his side, as Terry is in the beginning of the film, Johnny Friendly is all smiles, quick to give out hugs, pats on the back, and extra $50 bills. When a man’s goals diverge from his, however, that man instantly becomes an enemy. Since Johnny Friendly abides by the same code throughout the film, his character traits change very little, but his effect on other characters—and on the viewers—changes dramatically. Initially, Friendly comes across as powerful, and his booming speeches command respect. His disseminations of beatings become cautionary tales. However, after Terry Malloy speaks out to the Waterfront Crime Commission and effectively strips Friendly of all his power, Friendly becomes pitiable. He is nothing more than a puppet with a few of his strings cut. He flails comically, he roars ineffectively, and none of his orders stick.
Charlie Malloy negotiates a complex gauntlet of emotions and becomes a tragic figure at the end for unsuccessfully trying to bridge the gulf between two enemies. He’s as loyal as a blood brother to Johnny Friendly. Friendly has promoted him to second-in-command in the organization and has made it possible for him to provide for himself handsomely. Additionally, Friendly has been a sort of father figure for both Malloys since their father was murdered and Friendly took them under his strong and binding wing. However, Charlie’s love for Terry, Friendly’s enemy, is palpable in their every interaction. Whether he’s kidding with Terry about his cushy position on the docks or berating him for his relationship with Edie, Charlie exhibits concern for Terry’s well-being. However, he doesn’t consider Terry’s personal wishes, which proves to be a fatal mistake. Actor Rod Steiger portrays Charlie’s growing anxiety with knowing eyes and hesitant flappings of a glove in the taxicab. As the film progresses, Charlie realizes that his two sides cannot reconcile, and he becomes increasingly desperate to figure out how to maintain his loyalties to opposing parties.