On the Waterfront: A History of the Iconic Movie Made in Hoboken

Two words — Marlon Brando…swoon. Beyond being a serious heartthrob, he was also the star of an iconic movie filmed right here in Hoboken — On the Waterfront. Crime, corruption, and gutsy longshoremen are the themes of the critically acclaimed film that used Hoboken as its backdrop. The Mile Square was the perfect setting for the gritty, small town-feel of the film. The gangster and drama-filled plot is a filmography and historical feat that Hobokenites are deeply proud of. Read on to learn more about the iconic film and where in town the scenes were filmed.

on the waterfront movie hoboken

About the Film

On the Waterfront is a 1954 American crime drama that was filmed in Hoboken. It stars none other than the legendary Marlon Brando and gave Eva Marie Saint her film debut. The other leading actors include Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb. The film follows Terry Malloy {Marlon Brando}, a boxer-turned-longshoreman, as he struggles with the reality of being a younger brother to the right-hand man of the mob-connected union boss in the 1950s.

On the Waterfront was a critical and commercial success. It received 12Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Elia Kazan. In 1997, it was ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the eight-greatest American movies of all time. In 1989, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the U.S National Film Registry. Needless to say, On the Waterfront is a huge part of American and Tinseltown history. And it was filmed right here in our Mile Square city.

The Movie Plot

on the waterfront movie hoboken

Photo Credit: Hoboken Historical Museum

The mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly, not-so-secretly controls the shipping socks and overall waterfront operations. The local police and Waterfront Crime Commission are aware of Friendly’s connection to several murders and corruption, but because of his power and influence, all of the longshoremen play “deaf and dumb” {D + D}, rather than be shamed {or worse} for informing.

Charley “the gent” {Terry’s brother} was instructed by Friendly to ensure that Terry intentionally loses a big boxing match so Friendly could win a bet. When Joey Doyle {a popular dockworker}was set to speak to the Crime Commission about Friendly’s backroom dealing, Terry was assigned to send Joey up to a rooftop for an ambush. Terry assumed Friendly and his gang would “lean on him,” and pressure him to keep quiet, but was surprised to find that they murdered Joey instead.

Read More: A History of Hoboken’s First Brewery

Joey’s sister {Eva Marie Saint}, was fueled by the anger of her brother’s death and shamed the “waterfront priest” Father Barry {Karl Malden} into taking action against the mob-controlled union. Friendly sends Terry to attend and inform on a dockworkers meeting that Father Barry holds in the church, but is broken up by Friendly’s men. Terry helps Edie escape the violence and they wind up falling in love. Father Berry continues to attempt to break through to the men and inspire them to step away from Friendly’s influence through giving sermons and visiting the docs.

Initially, Terry didn’t mind playing “D and D,” but as he grows closer to Edie and begins to head Father Barry’s advice, his loyalty to Friendly begins to waver. He no longer wanted to align himself with the corruption of the union after they murdered Joey and another doc worker for having the courage to do the right thing. As Terry leans towards testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can convince him to keep quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry with a good job that requires no hard labor, and eventually a gun, but Terry doesn’t budge. In what has become an iconic scene, Terry reminds Charley that thanks to the fixed fight, his fighting career never took off. “I could’ve had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody,” Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

on the waterfront movie hoboken

Photo Credit: Hoboken Historical Museum

After finding Charley’s body, Terry pursues to kill Friendly, but Father Barry jumps into Terry’s line of fire and convinces him to testify in court. Terry agrees and gives a damaging testimony. In return, Terry was cut off from finding dock work and is shunned by the waterfront community.

Determined, Terry shows up during recruitment at the docks. When he is the only man not hired, Terry fearlessly confronts Friendly, shouting that he is proud of cooperating. It escalates into a brawl, with Friendly’s gang jumping Terry, nearly beating him to death. The dockworkers witnessed the confrontation and showed their support for Terry finally confronting Friendly and push him into the Hudson River. In the end, they all refuse to work unless Terry is hired too. Terry, terribly injured, forces himself on his feet and enters the dock, followed by the other workers in unity.

How Much of the Plot is True

on the waterfront movie hoboken

Photo Credit: Hoboken Historical Museum

Writer Budd Schulberg had spent a lot of time in Hoboken hanging out in waterfront bars and following developments in crime stories to make the film as accurate as possible. It was the film’s realism that made it such a hit.

Terry Malloy’s fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing Hoboken longshoreman Anthony “Tony Mike” DiVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission about activities.

The character of Father Barry was based on the real-life “waterfront priest” Father John M. Corridan, a Jesuit priest who operated a Roman Catholic labor school in Manhattan and fought corruption and exploitation of longshoremen.

See More: Noteworthy Buildings in Hoboken: Then and Now

The character of Johnny Friendly was partially based on East River dock boss Michael Clemente. Friendly also had aspects of Albert Anastasia, an underboss and later the boss for the Mangano crime family that ran the Brooklyn docks, later the Gambino crime family.

Several Hoboken residents played extras in the film. “Tommy Hanley was 13 years old when he noticed a crew working on the roof at his apartment building at 105 Hudson Street. When he went to investigate, he found men setting up a pigeon coop for a movie they were making. The carpenter, a local man, hired Tommy to feed the pigeons,” according to the Hoboken Historical Museum.

Where in Hoboken It Was Filmed

on the waterfront movie hoboken

The movie was filmed in 36 days around Hoboken. The main locations were the downtown docks {between 4th and 5th Street}, workers’ dwellings, rooftops, bars, parks, churches, and alleys. The shacks along the pier, as well as the warehouses and bars, are long gone, but their legacy lives on in the film. Filming in the middle of winter, in the blistering cold being swept up from the Hudson River was an added challenge for the cast and crew. Other filming locations include:

  • The scenes filmed on the shipping docks were between Fourth and Fifth Street along the waterfront, between the American Export and the Holland America docks.
  • The church used for exterior scenes was the historic Our Lady of Grace, at 400 Willow Avenue, and the interiors were in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul at 400 Hudson Street.
  • The filmmakers had difficulty getting inside a ship within Hoboken’s busy port, so the scenes inside a ship’s hold were filmed at Red Hook in Brooklyn. It’s uncertain whether the car in which Terry tells Charley that he “could have been a contender,” was parked in Hoboken or outside of town. However, Brando exits the car on 1st and River Street.
  • The roof and bar scenes were filmed along Hudson Street, now home to residential buildings and retail stores. At the time, the street was lined with dive bars, and was previously known as the “Barbary coast.”
  • The Waterfront Commission courtroom scene was filmed inside Hoboken City Hall.
  • The park scenes were filmed in Elysian, and Church Square Park.
  • The alleyway of Court Street was the backdrop of the scene when Terry and Edie were running from a truck driver.
  • The scene in which Terry takes Edie for a drink on their first date was filmed in Dino & Harry’s.
  • And bonus, when Brando wasn’t filming, he was a regular at Serventi’s Clam Broth House, now home to Monroe’s Cocktail Bar + Restaurant.

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Written by:

Victoria is HG's Editorial Assistant. She is a fourth-generation Hoboken native, BNR in the Mile Square, and Jersey City. Through playing softball in town for fourteen years, playing the trumpet for the Hoboken High School Redwings Band, and graduating from New Jersey City University, these two cities have a special place in her heart. When she isn’t Style Assisting or volunteering at Symposia Bookstore, Hoboken Fire Museum/Hoboken Historical Museum, she’s exploring everything the Concrete Jungle has to offer. You can catch her at art exhibitions, local festivities, traveling, diving into a new book, thrifting, or indulging in some form of arts and crafts.