The audience first discovers Terry’s connection to the mafia when he arrives at the local joint that they frequent. It is in this scene, the second one of the entire film, that Terry is set apart from the crowd quite conspicuously. It is evident in this picture of Terry with his bosses that he is not like them. Terry is the only one wearing a plaid jacket; the rest wear solid colors. As Jim Stark’s red jacket became symbolic of his character’s identity, so does Terry Malloy’s plaid jacket. In this case, Terry’s plaid jacket simultaneously sets him apart from his upper-class bosses and labels him a part of the lower-class working men. Although he wears his jacket when he first arrives to meet them, he proceeds to take it off as soon as he goes in to meet the head boss, an action that signifies his shame in his current status.
The beginning of Terry’s journey toward an identity resolution coincides with the death of his lifelong friend Joey (which takes place before the film begins). The investigation into Joey’s death is the crux in the plot; everything that happens is the town’s reaction to this moment. Edie (Eva Marie Saint), Joey’s sister, serves as Terry’s opposite, forcing the introverted bum to loudly live his life. Terry is mystified by Edie, and it is through their relationship that Terry slowly realizes his place in the waterfront town. Throughout the film, Terry wears his plaid jacket zipped to the collar—until meets Edie. Upon eating lunch together, Terry unzips his jacket, but does not remove it completely. It is not coincidental that his first physical moment of vulnerability comes at the same time as his emotional vulnerability. In this scene, he tells Edie about his childhood, volunteering information a normal criminal would never share about himself. Thus, the careful decision to unzip Terry’s jacket corresponds with his delicate confession.
Edie maintains the role of a jacket as a status symbol when she clutches Joey’s jacket in a scene that finds the town once again falling victim to the mafia. Joey’s jacket here serves as a symbolism for purity; Sister Edie holds on to the only true thing she knows. In a pivotal scene, she even goes so far as to offer the jacket to Terry. Although Terry rejects it, it is a turning point because of its effect on Terry’s conscience. Whereas before he might have simply shrugged off the jacket, and its link to a human connection, Terry disregards the jacket but hangs on to Edie. While he may not be ready to accept the purity that comes with the jacket that belonged to Joey, Terry is ready to accept a relationship—a decision that brings him closer to accepting his place in society.
Aside from Edie, Terry’s brother Charlie is the only other external influence on Terry’s identity. In what is perhaps the most renowned scene in this film, Terry and Charlie sits shoulder-to-shoulder in the backseat of a car. Charlie warns Terry of the mob’s intentions; Terry responds with a warning of his own: escape this life before it gets the best of you. The costumes in this scene act as supplements to Terry’s words. His jacket compliments his account of a miserable past; it is just as battered physically as he is metaphorically. Equally important in this scene is Charlie’s costuming. Although he wears the mob-standard solid jacket, he wears a plaid scarf, signifying that he too has been unable to completely let go of his less-than-ideal past. The fact that both brothers represent their lower-class status in this scene bonds them more than mere words could. In terms of setting, the Malloy brothers are squashed into the backseat of a small car, once again using physical arrangement as an expression of their self-identities.
It behooves us to pause here to absorb director Elia Kazan’s personal intentions with Terry Malloy. Kazan, in Jeff Young’s Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films, explains that his intention was not to turn Terry into a “Jesus figure,” but to have him grow from a “dumb kid” to a man who will make the difficult decision and follow “what he knows in his heart” by turning in his mafia colleagues. Kazan has created a “temporary hero” in Terry, created a man rooted in reality but lifted into “mythical” status (Young 121).
The next time Terry arrives at the dock hoping to get called up for work, his character has gone through a traumatic progression. Terry confessed his love for Edie, Charlie was killed by his own, and Terry completely reversed his position in the war between the classes. His reliable plaid jacket was stained with blood when he got shot; he and his shield were wounded. When he arrives at the dock again, he has finally discarded his exhausted jacket for another: Joey’s jacket. This shift in outerwear symbolizes Terry’s internal transition. He has ascended his plight as a lower-class longshoreman to become the town’s hero, a growth signaled by his confrontation with Friendly. His decision to wear Joey’s jacket means he has decided to do the right thing. Standing up to Friendly, the head of the mob, is the last step on Terry’s journey toward self-discovery.
The confrontation is the plot for the final scene in the film, and it has many consequences for all involved. Terry is literally beaten to a pulp, Friendly finally loses his authority, and the waterfront town is freed of the mob’s control. As a result of the altercation, Terry slumps on the ground, held up only by the wall until Edie and Father Berry arrive. Instead of utilizing their excuses as a reason not to get up, Terry forces himself to stumble up the perilous boardwalk that leads to the loading dock. While at the beginning of the film Terry may have followed an order for selfish reasons, by this scene (in the end) he understands that this perilous walk is exactly what the town needs. Thus, in the final shot of Terry, he stands proudly in front of his colleagues–in a jacket stained with (his own) blood and sweat–to prove he is worthy of the challenge. In the end, Terry is every bit as bloodied and battered as his jacket, but he acknowledges these bruises as mementos of his former self. Victoria Johnson