Priests have an unfortunate reputation, at least regarding how they are portrayed in popular culture. It is unfair, too, but that is the nature of stereotypes for you. As these things often begin, you have a small sample of a population behave in a manner that brings them attention, negatively or positively, and the zeitgeist now sees that as representative of the whole. When they are not being accused of some of the worst behaviors a human can do, we are told there is something wrong with a person who could choose such a life. Yes, I am being a bit circumspect, partly because today’s movie is not specifically about the priesthood. I will, of course, focus on it later on, but the American Film Institute’s (AFI) number nineteen on its list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time is On the Waterfront (1954). It is about corruption and murder amongst a Longshoreman’s union at New York harbor. Yet, Father Pete Barry (Karl Malden) sees this group as his parish and plays a prominent role in the events to follow. He also represents, in this Catholic reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the best cinematic representations of a man in cloth that you will likely see.
On the Waterfront begins with a homicide, but it is not one of those kinds of movies. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) goes to Joey Doyle’s (Ben Wagner) apartment to bring him a pigeon. By the way, raising these birds is a thing in this neighborhood. Instead of meeting Joey on the roof as they agree, Terry lets the bird loose and returns to his boss, Michael J. Skelly (Lee J. Cobb), known on the docks as Johnny Friendly. He is also the man who runs the union, which makes him basically a god to the people of the area. As Terry looks on, to his surprise Joey is thrown from the top of the building to his death. Showing up to minister to the body is Father Barry. He, along with Joey’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), want to know who is responsible for the tragedy, particularly since Joey is well liked. Despite this, nobody, including “Pop” Doyle (John F. Hamilton), speaks up, even though they all know who is ultimately to blame. Talking causes trouble, and Joey is evidence of this fact. Though Terry is upset by what happens, it earns him an easier job amongst those loading and unloading the ships. He is helped in this by his brother, Charley “the Gent” Malloy (Rod Steiger), who is one of Johnny Friendly’s trusted lieutenants. Thus, everyone goes back to work the next day seemingly content to put the affair behind them. Everyone, that is, except for Father Barry. He encourages people to speak their mind freely, and gets a few of them to meet in the basement of their local church. Johnny Friendly learns of this assemblage and sends Terry to learn the identities of those attending. It is here that he notices Edie, helping her to escape the premises when more of Johnny Friendly’s goons come to break up the meeting. Edie thinks Terry will aide her in finding those behind Joey’s death, but Terry advises her to keep her mouth shut. Meanwhile, Father Barry’s activities begin to have an effect. One of the longshoremen, Timothy J. “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning), tells the priest that he is willing to cooperate with an ongoing investigation of the union’s activities. Kayo makes this declaration only when Father Barry promises to see through to the end their private campaign against Johnny Friendly. Word gets around to Johnny Friendly that Kayo is talking, so arrangements are made for Kayo to have an “accident” during his next shift, resulting in the longshoreman’s death. Father Barry, who seems to appear whenever there is something serious going on, delivers a stirring speech to the assembled workers, while the overseers pelt him with all manner of garbage. This begins Terry’s conversion to Father Barry’s cause, seen in stopping a few of Johnny Friendly’s thugs from interrupting the priest. Doing so earns Terry Johnny Friendly’s ire, and he sends Charley to “take care of” his brother. I hope you understand what this means. It is while in the taxi on the way to where Charley is meant to kill Terry that we get the famous “I could have been a contender” line by Terry. He is referencing his boxing career, which ended when Charley told him that Johnny Friendly bet against him, meaning Terry had to lose on purpose. From there, it is straight to being one of Johnny Friendly’s lackeys. Still, Charley cannot bring himself to kill his own brother, and instead lets Terry out of the car. The taxi goes straight to Johnny Friendly, and Charley suffers the fate meant for Terry. At first, Terry wants to get bloody revenge on Johnny Friendly. The person who convinces him to do otherwise is Father Barry. Instead, Terry testifies in court against Johnny Friendly, implicating the union boss in Joey’s murder. Because of the attention this brings, Johnny Friendly cannot do what he typically would in getting even with the people who cross him. What he can do, though, is ensure that Terry has no work on the docks. Edie urges that they get away, but Terry shoulders his picking hook and heads to the docks regardless. He then watches as, after enduring stone faces from his peers, everyone else is picked to unload a shipment instead of him. Instead of going home defeated, he challenges Johnny Friendly to a fight with everyone watching. Johnny Friendly’s associates get in a few blows of their own, leaving Terry battered and bloody. At the same time, the person needing the shipment unloaded is getting annoyed with Johnny Friendly. However, when the longshoremen see Terry, they refuse to listen to Johnny Friendly. At Father Barry’s encouragement, Terry gets up and stumbles into the warehouse, signaling a new era in the union. The end.
As should be obvious by this time, On the Waterfront is not specifically about Father Barry. Nonetheless, since this is a Catholic film review blog, I will be focusing on him. There are many layers to why he is a great representative of the Faith. It is clear that his mission is to walk with the people, which is the kind of priesthood Jesus performed while here on Earth. This is evident when he refers to the longshoremen as his parish. He also is a man of the people. He drinks, fights, and smokes, and it is clear that he is willing to stand up to anyone, particularly Johnny Friendly and his outfit. At the same time, I do not want to make a lot out of this aspect of his character. It is good that they humanize him because I see a tendency, outside of cinema, to put priests either on a pedestal, or to fling them down beneath our level. There does not seem to be an in-between, which is where the rest of us are and from where these men are drawn. Put differently, priests are people like you and I, and we tend to forget this fact. Though I have made more out of this than intended, what I like better is Father Barry bringing Christ into the community. The shining example of this is his speech following Kayo’s death. Father Barry reminds them in several ways that Jesus is with them in their struggles, and kneeling with Kayo’s broken body. And he is right, for those listening, and for you and I. In short, Father Barry is, if you will pardon the expression, the total package.
There is a whole political sub-text that I did not get into with On the Waterfront. You can read about it on your own. I recommend it not because of Brando, who does as great a job as you would expect from such a legend. Instead, watch it for Father Barry. He is a great representative of how Faith can be alive and applicable in our modern world.