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.