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This story of Mob informers was based on a number of true stories and filmed on location in and around the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey. Mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) gloats about his iron-fisted control of the waterfront. The police and the Waterfront Crime Commission know that Friendly is behind a number of murders, but witnesses play "D and D" ("deaf and dumb"), accepting their subservient position rather than risk the danger and shame of informing.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a dockworker whose brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly's right hand man. Some years earlier, Terry had been a promising boxer until Friendly had Charley instruct him to deliberately lose a fight that he could have won, so that Friendly could win money betting against him.
Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy with Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle.As the film begins, Terry is used to coax a popular dockworker, Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner), out to an ambush, preventing him from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey's death but is still willing to remain "D and D". Terry meets and is smitten by the murdered Joey Doyle's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who has shamed "waterfront priest" Father Barry (Karl Malden) into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union.
Soon both Edie and Father Barry are urging Terry to testify. Another dockworker, Kayo Dugan, who agrees to testify after Father Barry's promise of unwavering support, ends up dead after Friendly arranges for him to be crushed by a load of whiskey in a staged accident.
As Terry, tormented by his awakening conscience, increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry with a good job, and finally threatens him by holding a gun up against him, but recognizes he has failed to sway Terry, who places the blame for his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. In one of the most famous scenes in film history, Terry reminds Charley that if it had not been for the fixed fight, "I coulda been a contender." Charley gives Terry a gun and advises him to run. Friendly has been spying on the situation, so he has Charley murdered, his body hanged in an alley as bait to get at Terry. Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry obstructs that course of action and finally convinces Terry to fight Friendly by testifying.
After the testimony, Friendly announces that Terry will not find employment anywhere on the waterfront. Edie tries to persuade him to leave the waterfront with her, but he nonetheless shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry openly confronts Friendly, proclaiming that he is proud of what he did.
Finally, the confrontation develops into a vicious brawl, with Terry getting the upper hand until Friendly's thugs gang up on Terry and beat him nearly to death. The dockworkers, who witnessed the confrontation, declare their support for Terry and refuse to work unless Terry is working too. Finally, the badly wounded Terry forces himself to his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other longshoremen despite Friendly's threats.