A sky the color of smoke broods over the docks of an East Coast city, as Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) sleepwalks through indifferent days unloading freight in the landmark 1950s film, On the Waterfront. He coulda’ been a contender, could have been somebody—as he confides in his brother—but now, let’s face it, he’s just a bum. His prospects look to be nil, until fortune lends a hand. As the film’s story unfolds, Terry’s path crosses that of a young woman he had known when they were kids in the neighborhood.
With her aura of unsullied idealism, Edie Doyle (Eve Marie-Saint) seems as out of place as a lily of the fields amidst the gritty world of the docks, the musty bars with separate ladies’ entrances, and the working class row houses crowded together like cell blocks. Angelic appearance to the contrary, she is not a delicate flower. Committed to her sense of what is right, and undaunted in trying to find out who is responsible for her brother’s murder, she forces the parish priest to confront reality: the prayers of distant men will never right the wrongs.
Through their growing relationship, Edie brings Terry back to life, spiritually and morally. Viewing himself through her eyes, he reclaims his identity from the shadows of self-doubt. He challenges the very forces who rendered him a nobody, and, in so doing, renews himself. The faith between men and women shines in a murky and corrupt world.
The character of Edie is really the fulcrum for the actions of Terry and the priest in On the Waterfront. Her resolve imbues them with the strength and courage to take action against the corruption controlling the docks. In the 1950s, this was a remarkable feminine movie role. In this instance, art provided a counter vision to the restricted identity available to women in American culture at that time, and a window into the future.