Kazan wanted his directing in On the Waterfront to be invisible so that the actors’ performances could be the focus of the film. Kazan and Polish-born, New York–based cinematographer Boris Kaufman eschew flashy camerawork and avoid employing extreme angles, intense close-ups, and overt camera movements. Instead, the actors often appear in two-shot (two people at midrange) or in wider shots to show the arrangements of characters. Kazan and Kaufman use the positioning of characters within a frame to suggest a power dynamic. For example, at the end of the film, when Terry Malloy runs down the ramp that connects the dock to the Longshoreman’s Local Union shack, he stands literally between both camps, hanging in thin air. Johnny Friendly sits below him, as if in a netherworld, emerging from a shack floating on the water. The longshoremen stand as a unified mass on the solid ground of land. Malloy is literally and symbolically in between. Kazan and Kaufman also use suggestive framing when Father Barry is hoisted out of the hold with Dugan’s corpse on the palette. In their unmoving, reverent pose, rising above all the men around them, Father Barry seems to be riding with Dugan straight into heaven as a reward for speaking his mind.
There are some moments, however, when the direction begs to be noticed and discussed. The most important incidence of style taking precedence over content is when Malloy confesses to Edie his involvement in her brother’s death. Instead of letting the viewer hear this crucial conversation, Kazan allows the noise of a nearby ship’s whistle to overwhelm the voices, and only a few of Malloy’s words can be heard. Kazan uses this impressionistic rendering to suggest the depth of feeling and the frenzy of confused emotions underpinning the conversation. Because the feelings are more important than the actual words spoken, the scene’s impact is more powerful than the impact a literal rendering would have provided. The ship’s whistle and a pounding machine overwhelm Malloy’s confession, emphasizing the weight his words have on Edie. She clutches her face and ears as if resisting the world around her, then flees. She leaves Malloy alone on a pile of rocks with the Empire State Building visible in the background through the fog, representing a distant dream and an idealized way of life. Scenes like this are rare, however, and Kazan usually allows his actors to work in an uncomplicated frame.
Kazan encouraged his actors to use a lot of physical touch, which was a significant directing development. Not all the touching is erotic—some is merely friendly or intimate. Goons and longshoremen push each other around in friendly games. Charlie and Terry sit practically on top of each other in the taxicab scene. Charlie and Edie touch often in the saloon with arm-taps and caresses. Father Barry touches almost everyone he comes into contact with. Even Johnny Friendly hugs and lifts Terry in their first scene at the bar. Touching emphasizes the crowded environment, but it also affirms the intimacy of all these relationships. In a stage production, where characters might stand a few feet apart from each other as they speak, creating naturalistic emotions is a challenge. But in Kazan’s world, people use their bodies. They bump into each other, shake hands, hug, tap each other to demonstrate points, horse around—they generally feel real to the viewer.
Kazan creates some of the most subtle moments of direction ever to hit the screen. In the first shot of the film, an enormous cruise ship fills the frame, lodged at the docks. From a grungy little shack in a small corner of the frame, Johnny Friendly marches out with all his men, followed by Terry Malloy. A very small group is running a large area, a contrast that the frame emphasizes. Additionally, Terry’s “confession” to Father Barry takes place outside of the church. Even though Terry wants to talk to Father Barry inside the church, the machinations of the plot draw them outside to the waterfront. This location shades the scene: Terry’s confession, Kazan is saying, is not a religious one. Merely speaking will not absolve Terry of any sins, and only action will alleviate his guilt. Father Barry is not a Catholic mentor to Terry but a mentor of the soul. The waterfront becomes a living, breathing part of his confession.