On the Waterfront (1954) Screenplay Analysis

On The Waterfront (1954), written by Budd Schulberg, won eight Academy Awards, and is generally considered Marlon Brando’s best acting performance. How’s the script? Let’s analyze it.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: “Shooting Script, 1954”
  • Type: Shooting
  • Page Count: 138
  • Reading Speed: Medium
  • Setting(s): Hoboken, New Jersey
  • Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple days
  • Genre(s): Gangster
  • Theme(s): Crime, Murder, Death, Love, Religion, Justice, Morality
  • Protagonist Change: Significant

Overall Thoughts

There are times when you are reading truly great scripts, such as Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The King’s Speech (2010). I would consider On The Waterfront about as close as you can come to greatness without quite getting there.

Let’s start with the positives: Dialogue. It’s believable, strong, and filled with emotion. The scenes are spectacular and are filled with symbolism. Besides the famous taxi ride and the climax, the scene in which the Father goes to the bottom of the ship to give an impassioned speech while the mob looks on from above is set perfectly. The main character, as well as the primary supporting cast, are very well thought out.

Okay, the drawbacks, which there are comparatively few and their overall impact minor. Perhaps most importantly, there are a few supporting characters who don’t quite reach their potential. The homeless man, whose name I can’t be bothered to search for, feels overused and relied upon in important scenes. Jimmy’s, the kid who looked up to Terry, role isn’t quite as defined as it could have been. More broadly, some of the lines just felt unnecessary, while the shift between various emotional states (ex. Terry going from annoyed to angry) happens too quickly given how strong the emotions are in certain scenes. I could go on, but it’s not worth dwelling on these minor downsides.


A man has to choose between the mob and a woman, good versus evil, money versus justice, and his brother versus doing the right thing. It’s a brilliant plot because there are many justifiable reasons to pick either side. It’s not that the line between good and bad is murky. Rather, every decision has both good and bad ramifications. Of course, we all expect our protagonist to see the light, but he has to be beaten down, both figuratively and literally, before doing so.


Terry, a former boxer who took a dive so the mob would win a bet. Johnny Friendly, the mob boss. Father Barry, out for justice. Edie, Terry’s love, who is the sister of the person Terry helped kill, the incident at the start of the story. Notice how each character represents a theme, such as justice or love, or greed.

Dialogue & Pacing

The dialogue was strong, as stated above. Perhaps the best scenes are the monologues. Here’s part of one:


What does Christ think of the easy-money boys who do none of the work and take all of the gravy? What does He think of these fellows wearing diamond rings- on your union dues and your kickback money? How does He feel about bloodsuckers picking up a longshoreman’s work tab and grabbing twenty percent interest at the end of the week?


How does He, who spoke without fear against evil, feel about your silence?

Truly, there are some amazing quotes and lines of dialogue in this screenplay. You’ll notice them even after reading the first few pages of the script.

Emotional Impact

It’s a 69-year-old movie that still is impactful. Why? Probably not due to the subject matter. If you read The Greatest Beer Run Ever or saw the movie (I will try to add that to my script list), you’ll note that shipping containers changed the industry back in the 60s/70s, so most of us aren’t familiar with longshoremen. But what is impactful are the themes explored. Themes such as justice and morality. And the way in which they are scrutinized is simple and clear, and are therefore relatable.

Best Part of The Script

It’s a script that’s worth reading in full. Other scenes worth picking out are the Father’s speech (starts on Page 79), the taxi ride (starts on Page 98), and the final fight and climax (Starts on Page 127).