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On the Waterfront

Important Quotations Explained

Acting

Key Facts

1. Father Barry:   “D & D? What’s that?”
Kayo Dugan:   “Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat.”

This exchange takes place during the secret meeting the priest holds in the basement of the church. It illustrates the depth and longevity of the longshoremen’s bind. Though they all agree, deep down, that the treatment they receive from Johnny Friendly and his goons is unfair and inhuman, speaking out about it might put them in a worse situation—that is, jobless or dead. Living by the code forced on them by the corrupt union has preserved their lives, but they live in a degraded state almost like slaves. To save their own lives, the longshoremen agree to act as if they see and hear nothing. The word torpedoes is slang for Johnny Friendly and his goons, who point weapons of sorts at the longshoremen every day. The goons hang out on the docks as perpetual reminders of Friendly’s strength, and they have a long history of roughing people up. To rat means to reveal injustices or transgressions to a party that’s not immediately involved, such as a lawyer or the Waterfront Crime Commission. It holds the same significance as stool pigeon in the slang of the stevedores.

2.
Edie:   “Which side are you with?”
Terry:   “Me? I’m with me—Terry.”

When nameless thugs ambush the secret meeting, Terry helps Edie escape. As they walk through the park in front of the church, a hesitant Edie tries to figure out who Terry is. She can’t read him because she isn’t familiar with the area or the way the dock works. She doesn’t know who’s who. Terry’s casual answer here reveals a streak of naïveté because, though he may think he’s independent at this point, he’s clearly a pawn of Johnny Friendly and Charlie “the Gent.” He wouldn’t have shown up at the meeting if he were truly on his own. As Terry’s conscience swells inside him, and as he begins to act on that conscience, this statement becomes increasingly true. But at this time, his attempts to distance himself from either side are mere dreaming. Nevertheless, this dreaming reveals his awareness that he wants nothing of the life either side can offer him. Deep down, he’s not a thug, but he’s not a day laborer either. The film traces Terry’s discovery of who that “me” really is.

3.
Terry:   “Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

The night after Terry and Edie walk through the park, Edie finds Terry on the rooftop tending to the pigeons, including Joey’s. Curious about his sensitive side, she agrees to go with him to a saloon, where they have an intimate and revealing conversation. Terry’s statement here indicates the huge philosophical gap between him and Edie. This gap makes their developing relationship all the more powerful, because to understand each other they must attempt to understand an unfamiliar and even unsavory way of living and thinking. Terry’s words summarize a lifetime of being pushed around and having to scrap for every morsel and every bit of self-confidence. In Edie’s worldview, everybody cares about everybody else, while Terry visualizes a dog-eat-dog world in which people do what they have to do in order to survive.

4.
Terry:   “But you know if I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel.”
Father Barry:   “And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?”

After Father Barry hears Terry’s out-of-church confession about his involvement in Joey Doyle’s death, he urges Terry to tell both Edie and the Waterfront Crime Commission, and he gets this response. This brief exchange effectively summarizes Terry’s mounting dilemma and is the thematic crux of the film. Terry must decide whether he wants to risk his life by speaking out against larger, stronger forces, or to live the rest of his life with a secret harbored deep in his heart. Father Barry’s response here indicates that Terry’s duty as a human being is to tell the truth. Otherwise, he’ll live a tortured existence with a cowardly soul. As a priest, Father Barry believes in a glorious afterlife, but only for those who have done their best to cleanse their souls. This conversation foreshadows Terry’s final explosion on the docks in which he reclaims his conscience and forges an individual identity: “I been rattin’ on myself all these years.”

5.
Terry:   “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been someone, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it . . . It was you, Charlie.”

Terry says this to Charlie at the end of the profoundly intimate taxicab conversation where the two tense brothers are alone for the first time in the film. Charlie, who cares deeply for his brother but hasn’t looked out for him properly, allows himself to deny the reason for Terry’s failed boxing career. He condemns mistakenly the rotten trainer who supposedly mismanaged Terry’s skills. But in truth, Charlie’s association with Johnny Friendly meant that the union had a boxer it could control. Through Charlie, Johnny Friendly ordered Terry to tank a big fight, guaranteeing himself a huge payoff by betting on the opponent. Even though Charlie made sure Terry got a bit of cash, Terry complains here that Charlie killed what was really at stake—his soul, his pride, and his self-esteem. This well-known quote reveals the complexity of the brothers’ relationship and expresses Terry’s deep inner pain that the relationship probably cannot be salvaged. The brothers love each other—but Terry now acknowledges his brother’s partial responsibility for his current bind, and he finally realizes that he can escape the label of “bum” only through his own actions.

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