When director Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront opens, the longshoreman's union is so strongly controlled by the mob that the environment of the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, is one in which corruption reigns and decency has long been subjugated to the control of mob boss Johnny Friendly. For instance, Terry Malloy tries to persuade friend Joey Doyle not to testify before the Crime Comission against Friendly, who is responsible for murders because he fears for Doyle's life. However, Terry's act of friendship results in an ambush for Joey and he is killed. For being instrumental in the death of his friend, Terry is ridden with guilt, but his fear of Friendly and his thugs prevents him from seeking justice for Joey.
It is not until Terry falls in love with Joey's sister Edie that his conscience is so stirred that he is anguished and begins to listen to the priest who urges him to do the right thing and testify before the Crime Commission. Further, Terry realizes that he has been a pawn of Friendly ever since his brother Charley persuaded him to throw a fight so that Friendly could profit from his bets. So, since he is no longer his own man, no "contender," but merely a pawn for the mob, Terry decides to display integrity and testify.
This presentation of Terry's existential act is not one of mere black to white morality as it has taken much convincing on the part of Edie and the priest to get Terry to realize testifying will be the first step in breaking the control of the union. Then, when Terry learns of another worker's death, he becomes aware that more and more harm will be done if he does not act.
If there is little subtlety to the presentation of morality in this film, the viewers must consider also that Kazan immerses them in media res of the predicament of the dockworkers. Because the movie focuses mainly upon a moral crisis, some viewers may feel that Terry's choice is an "either/or" decision. But, in closer examination of the main characters, there is a prior history established in which greyer areas existed. For example, Edie's having gone away to school where she escapes her environment has allowed her to avoid moral choices. Terry's and Charley's famous scene in the car points to some of the subtleties of their environment, as well.