The mise-en-scène, or physical environment in which On the Waterfront takes place, is not a set. Kazan and his crew filmed On the Waterfront on the actual docks and piers of Hoboken, New Jersey, in view of New York City. Kazan achieves authenticity and grit thanks to the backdrops of the inner cargo holds of ships, the cramped, dank spaces in which the union workers live, and the seedy, smoky bars of the area. No amount of careful art direction could result in a set that comes even close to the real thing. Even many of Johnny Friendly’s goons were not actors. Instead, they were actual former heavyweight boxers who were hired for their rough demeanor and imposing physical presence. Many of the longshoremen, too, were actual workers from the Hoboken docks. The background sounds on the dock—ships’ whistles and chains clanging through metal loops—add to the realistic aural environment. All of these decisions result in an environment that heightens the reality and depth of the characters’ struggles and emotions.
Kazan filmed On the Waterfront outside on the docks in what happened to be one of New York’s coldest winters in years. Breaths are visible and steam up in the bone-cold air. A small detail like this suggests the brutal treatment these dock workers face daily, not only from the corrupt union officials but from the elements themselves. The visible breaths also affirm the unique existence of each character—it’s difficult to lump any of these men into the background. The cold took its toll on Kazan’s actors—Kazan says the hardest job of his directing was to get the actors to come out into the cold. The actors didn’t have to stretch to act cold from the comforts of a climate-controlled set. With so many natural elements to the mise-en-scène, the actors were free to focus entirely on their characters’ emotions.
The steamy hot air seeping up through the sewers or steam being released on the docks creates a misty visual atmosphere. The drifts of steam and cloud suggest the moral ambiguity of every character. When Malloy finally tracks down Father Barry to confess, for instance, they walk through an indistinct park, with steam swirling all around them, a seeming manifestation of the uncertain and frightening terrain through which they’re each carefully trying to find their way.
Ironically, the profoundly intimate taxicab scene is the one major scene that was not shot on location. It was shot in half a taxi’s shell in a studio—proof that the actors’ skill can shine in settings both false and real.