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Terry Malloy (a young Marlon Brando) is a longshoreman and former boxer working for a corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly. At the open of the film, Terry is used to unwittingly lead another dockworker to his death, which he resents, but there is a culture of D&D: deaf and dumb; nobody talks out of fear of shame or retribution.

The dead dockworker's sister, Edie, however is determined to find out what happened to her brother, and enlists the help of a local priest, Father Barry. Terry falls in love with Edie, and feels tremendous guilt over his involvement, but refuses to testify out of fear.

Father Barry eventually convinces another dockworker to testify at the hearings, but he ends up dead, crushed in a dockside 'accident' . This incident causes Terry to lean towards testifying, and Friendly sends his lawyer/accountant, Charley, Terry's older brother, to convince him to stay silent or to kill him.

This leads to a famous film scene in the back of a taxi, where Charley attempts to convince Terry, offering him a cushy job in exchange. In an incredibly emotionally poignant scene, we learn about Terry's former boxing career: he was a promising young boxer, and he 'coulda been a contender, could abeen somebody' but he had thrown an important match because his brother asked him to, so Friendly could win a substantial amount of money betting on the underdog. Charley is unable to convince Terry, nor convince himself to kill him, so he lets him go. However, Charley has been spied on, and he is killed shortly thereafter.

Terry is understandably furious, and plans to kill Friendly. Father Barry manages to convince Terry to get his revenge by testifying instead, which then leads to climax of the movie.

Apparently based on actual stories of corruption on the waterfront of the East Coast, the film has an air of authenticity. The defeatist attitude of the dockworkers is heartbreaking, but they have no alternative: they fear for their safety and their jobs. And one mirrors the frustration at this attitude by the outsiders, Edie and Father Barry.

The performances are great, and the story is strong (though I felt the eventual ending was a bit weak and loose), but it puts you a bit through an emotional wringer. Marlon Brando's performance was strong enough that I just added his other famous early film, A Streetcar Named Desire to my list.
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October 2011

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