On the Waterfront is a story of heroics, drama, romance, morality, and most importantly- conflict with authority. There are many ways in which conflict with authority is portrayed throughout the film. Foremost, much of this conflict is preceded by characterization. Such characterization is expressed through the costumes of the characters within the small town setting of Hoboken, New Jersey. The conflict with authority is mirrored by the characters’ battle against the elements. The weather is representative of the authority over which they characters feel that they have no control. Much like the harsh bitter winds off of the rocky, uninviting wharf, the small town inhabitants of Hoboken must endeavor to insulate themselves against the harsh reality of their futility in the face of the larger powers that be. Terry, for instance, is shown in a coat for the majority of the film, but he often complains of it having incurred many holes that let the cold winter air in. Much like his coat, Terry’s resistance to Johnny Friendly’s mob influences is present, but has a few weak points in it. Symbolically, Edie Doyle (played by Eva Marie Saint) gives Terry (played by Marlon Brando) her now dead brother’s unoccupied coat. In many ways, Edie’s purity and kindness-as evident in her action of giving Terry her brother’s coat- force Terry to realize how wrong things are and thusly encourage him to build up a stronger resistance to the authority figure of Johnny Friendly and his squad of loyal and faithful goons. Edie’s clothing is exceptionally dainty throughout the entirety of the film. She is depicted in ultra feminine outfits and is thusly portrayed as being exceptionally vulnerable and fragile.
This being true, she also has no necessity for a thick external layer because she relies so heavily upon her morals and places a great sense of importance upon the truth and what is morally and ethically correct. Edie is also mainly seen wearing lighter fabrics and colors and the lightness of her extremely blonde hair does a lot in the way of portraying her as exceptionally innocent. She is not yet jaded and has been able to remain untainted due to her attending school outside of the corrupt city of Hoboken New Jersey. Terry’s hair is also blonde, but a much darker shade. He is also good, like Edie, but has been somewhat blemished and marred by his contact with the mob and his dealings there within. Johnny Friendly is always shown wearing dark suits to represent the darkness of his soul and the filth of his dirty dealings. When the audience first sees Terry in cahoots with Johnny Friendly, Terry is seen wearing a darkly colored turtleneck. In this way, he matches the color scheme of the mobsters and allows himself to fit in with them, as well as curtail to their despicable and dark ways.
In many of the shots, Edie is depicted as being physically above Terry. It is not a struggle for power, but rather this placement represents how Terry is willing, in some ways, to let go of his own beliefs and give way to Edie’s own, more ethical way of thinking. In a way, he is physically giving her authority over their interactions. He often does this and allows Edie to view a much softer side of his personality. He wants to appear human to her and flaunts the compassionate humanity that he hides from his mobster contemporaries. During the scene in which Terry and Edie are having drinks at a local bar, Edie is wearing some darkly colored frock with a white collar beneath. This is the first glimpse that the audience and Terry have at who Edie really is. As she shares her kind philosophies on life, she begins to slowly plant the seed of change within Terry. The white collar peeking out beneath her darkly colored coat is symbolic of a goodness in Terry that is beginning to peak out beneath a hardened, darker exterior. This lightness that Edie is instilling him with will eventually give him the strength, power, and will to battle the authority of Johnny Friendly and the mob’s stranglehold on the town.
In the scene of their first kiss, while Terry is dressed to withstand the harsh New England elements, Edie is wearing a much softer, sleeveless frock made of silk. In this scene, Edie is at her weakest and displays the height of her femininity. Whenever the kiss actually occurs, Terry has literally pinned her up against a wall with wallpaper behind her depicting delicate looking white (or perhaps merely lightly colored) flowers. Edie is at here most fragile state and this is directly represented by the flowered wallpaper that serves as a backdrop for her first kiss with Terry. In this power struggle between their two very different, but very strong personalities, Edie allows her fragility to give way to Terry’s rougher approach to life and their relationship.
The music is also especially important in emphasizing the keys aspects of the conflict with authority throughout the film. When Edie and Terry first meet on the wharf, the music is light, airy, and playful. It places a happy aura around a scene, which would otherwise be very distressing for Edie. She is fighting with a lot of her might to retrieve a work ticket from Terry. The music is indicative of the light and playful air that surrounds the sometimes fierce struggles between the two characters as they continuously butt heads on the subject of right, wrong, real, and true. The music is also a key element in the last scene of the movie after Terry has fought with Johnny Friendly and subsequently was beaten almost senseless. The music gives the scene an element of triumph that would otherwise be nonexistent. Without the music, the last scene would be an anticlimactic walk to the wharf director, which would give way to an extremely abrupt and probably confusing conclusion. With the music, however, the walk down the wharf is a champion’s strut in celebration of a victory.