As every film student knows, On the Waterfront, despite the script having been written by Budd Schulberg, represented Elia Kazan’s attempt to explain his decision to testify against some of his colleagues before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) by showing the moral transformation of a once-disreputable former boxer turned enforcer, Terry Malloy. The initial catalyst for Terry’s transition, and for his decision to testify against his former friends and colleagues, was his growing romantic relationship with Edie, the sister of a victim of one of Terry’s colleague’s successful efforts at silencing the rare brave individual who dared testify against evil.
Edie serves as Terry’s conscience until he finally develops one of his own. It is Edie, who has recently returned from a Catholic school, who rebukes Father Barry for the latter’s seeming unwillingness to confront labor racketeers directly rather than from the pulpit. In so, she questions the role of passive faith:
Edie: My brother’s dead and you [Father Barry] stand there and talk drivel about time and faith.
Father Barry: Why Edie, I . . .
Edie: How could anyone do this to Joey . . . Tell me – who? – who?
Father Barry: I wish I knew Edie, but . . . Edie, I do what I can. I’m in the church when you need me.
Edie: ‘In the church when you need me?’ Was there ever a saint who hid in the church?
With this exchange, Schulberg/Kazan set the tone for the moral transformation yet to come. Terry’s growing infatuation with Edie is the dramatic instrument they use to effect that transformation. Their initial encounter, following an attack on the church by the racketeers, begins the transition:
Edie: Who are you with?
Terry: I’m with Terry.
Edie: Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else?
Terry: Boy, what a fruitcake you are!
As the story progresses, and Terry’s growing love for Edie begins to set him against his old colleagues, including his older brother, the exchanges between the two introduce Terry to the concept of having a “conscience” (“Conscience . . . that stuff can drive you nuts”) and the moral imperative of taking a stand. It is certainly no accident that Terry’s hobby involves caring for pigeons – “pigeon” being the euphemism for one who testifies against his friends or colleagues – and Terry’s discussion of pigeons with Edie on the roof of the tenement slum in which he lives includes this observation: “You know this city’s full of hawks? That’s a fact. They hang around on the top of the big hotels. And they spot a pigeon in the park. Right down on him.” If Terry is destined to be a “pigeon,” then Johnny Friendly is the hawk.
As Father Barry become more active in confronting Johnny Friendly directly, and as Terry falls deeper in love with Edie, the transformation from sinner to saint is well underway. It is concluded when Charlie is killed for Terry’s “sin” of testifying against Johnny. The “pigeon” is now fully redeemed. Kazan, however, would live the remainder of his life with the shadow of his HUAC testimony always trailing behind, rightly or wrongly.