On The Waterfront I Coulda Been A Contender Essay Checker

Charley: Look, kid, I— how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.
Terry: It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night!" My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville. You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.
Charley: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry: You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it. It was you, Charley.

On the Waterfront

Retirony is especially cruel when it strikes a character down in his or her prime just as he or she begins embarking on success and glory. At least the old soldiers in combat made something out of their lives even if they found no peace afterwards. These young souls don't have the opportunity to become somebodies — they get just a little taste of it before suffering a Career-Ending Injury or circumstances force them to throw it all away. Naturally, this will be right after (or right before) they reach the point that would make them bona fide superstars. Years long after, the disillusioned nobodies still can't get the taste of what could have been out of their mouths. This may lead to them taking their pent-up frustration out on the youths who look to be fast becoming the kind of people Fate prevented them from joining. The lost opportunity or career is most commonly some form of sports, but non-sports related careers are not unheard of. A Super Trope to The Pete Best (where they got forced out by others rather than fate). Compare Dream-Crushing Handicap, Stage Mom, Glory Days, Trade Your Passion for Glory. White-Dwarf Starlet is a related phenomenon, where the person got their moment of glory — it just didn't last long, and the bitterness is tangible. Sometimes associated with Jaded Washout.


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    Anime and Manga 

  • This happens at a pretty young age to Coco in Basquash!. After suffering a traumatic leg injury at the hands of a mecha, she became wheelchair bound and unable to continue playing basketball, which is part of what kicks off the series' story.
  • Invoked and subverted in Bleach with Tatsuki, who broke her arm after getting into the top eight in a fighting competition between girls of her age group, but still managed to earn second place despite the injury. She says that had it not been for the broken arm, she could have won the whole thing.
  • On Eyeshield 21, Doburoku Sakaki blew his chance at a professional sports career when he injured himself while recklessly trying to finish the Death March by himself. He seems to take it in fairly good stride, though, and respects the drive and camaraderie of the Devil Bats.
  • This is how the plot of I Couldn't Become a Hero, So I Reluctantly Decided to Get a Job starts off. The protagonist Raul was the top of his class to become a hero, only for the demon king to kick the bucket. With peace brought into the world, the hero business was closed down and he's forced to work as a retail sales clerk, unable to find a job with abilities that he can't use in any other businesses.
  • An example outside of sports: Oji Tanaka, the protagonist of The Legend of Black Heaven, was the guitarist for the titular heavy metal band. They had a single hit, and the group then drifted apart for reasons even they can't describe. Oji, now a browbeaten middle-management salaryman with an unaccommodating family, is deeply bitter about his life as it is and as it could have been.
  • Mawaru-Penguindrum provides another music example. Double H, the two idol singers that are all over the place, were originally Triple H before Himari's illness forced her to quit the band.
  • Silver Nina: In his high school days, Shutaro wanted to hit it big and own his own company. Ten years after graduating, however, he's forced to return to his small hometown in failure and poverty, kicking off the plot as he becomes his niece Nina's primary caretaker.
  • Slam Dunk: The Start of Darkness for Mitsui Hisashi is this. In junior high school basketball, he's an MVP. He's surely on the way to repeat such feats in high school... then Game-Breaking Injury kicked in. As he watched his friend Akagi get most of the glories in his place, Mitsui left the basketball court, bitter with the sport and become a delinquent. Subverted 2 years later, when he's given a chance to redeem himself and be a contender; a great contender he becomes.


  • Batman:
    • In the 'Club of Heroes' arc in Grant Morrison's run onBatman, several of the Batmen of All Nations have fallen prey to this since the team-up which could have propelled them to international prominence and fame sputtered out after two meetings, one of which Batman himself didn't bother to show up for. Wingman, however, suffers most of all, since his bitterness at being denied what he sees as his chance to be in the big leagues leads to his Face–Heel Turn in that arc. Batman, naturally, is scathing:

      Batman: You don't understand. We don't do what we do for fame. How much were you paid to throw away your morals?

    • It's common to portray many of Batman's Rogues Gallery as frustrated geniuses undone by trauma and external malice. Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Scarecrow are seen as individuals with enough scientific talent that they can contribute legitimately to society, but instead use their abilities for evil schemes.
    • Batman himself often thinks that his parents will see him as having wasted his considerable potential becoming a crime fighter when he could have done far more for the world as a scientist, engineer and intellectual, skills he displays as Batman but conceals as "Bruce Wayne" to avoid drawing attention. This is of course depending on the writer, and some have Bruce Wayne as far more active and less of an Upper-Class Twit.
  • One of the Spider-Man annuals gave the Sandman an entire story built on this idea, complete with reference to On the Waterfront. One of the highlights was ruining his potential football career by fixing a game in high school (to help a friend square a mob debt, no less).
    • Ultimate Spider-Man portrays scientists like Doctor Octavious and Shocker this way. Genuinely brilliant scientists and technicians who as a result of circumstances end up becoming villains.
    • For a long time in the comics, many saw Peter Parker as this. A science prodigy as a high school student who makes a living as a freelance photographer and was traditionally seen as the underachiever in his social circle. The fact that by the mid 20s he kept having the same life as his high school days (balancing his Aunt, his relationships, his rent, his superherowork) only cemented this. Recently, writers have made him a CEO of his own corporation specifically to challenge this idea, and also to update the setting since it strains credibility for Spider-Man to remain poor and struggling and still operate in a contemporary New York of high student loans, high rent and constant expenses.
  • In Preacher, Jesse Custer becomes the sheriff of Salvation. His key officer is a woman who was going to join the Army, but her mother fell ill and she stayed to look after her.
  • Lex Luthor keeps thinking of how he could have saved the world and humanity with his great intellect if not for Superman, and that he actually hates developing Weapons Of Mass Destruction and other Mad Scientist devices. This is repeatedly shown as a self-delusion however, and both in Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis stories, Superman has contempt for Luthor for wasting his genius on petty schemes when he could have saved the world years ago if he wanted.


  • In 99 River Street, Ernie had to give up boxing due to an eye injury which could have left him blind if he were ever hit there again too hard. But even though he can no longer compete, he's still able to put his boxing skills to good use when faced with violent criminals.
  • Marty's Bad Future in Back to the Future Part II; A car accident resulted in a hand injury that left him unable to play the guitar.
  • Carrie according to Sissy Spacek. As she explains in A Decade Under the Influence:

    In the book, Carrie, she was just a complete loser and I felt there needed to be some...a little ray of hope...it would make it sadder if Carrie could have been the Prom Queen, that if there was a possibility she could pull it off. It would make it sadder when the walls came tumbling down.

  • Inverted by Citizen Kane, when he is forced to give up the control of his empire. Hardly a nobody. Very disillusioned, he reflects that it was his advantages that stole him his chance at true greatness:

    Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
    Thatcher: Don't you think you are?
    Charles Foster Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
    Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
    Charles Foster Kane:Everything you hate.

  • Double Subverted in the film version of Daredevil. Matt Murdock's father used to be a boxer, and ended up working as an enforcer for the mob. After Matt gets blinded, his father decides to clean up his act and become a boxer again. He does very well for himself. Then, as he's preparing for a fairly major fight, he finds out that the mob's been behind all his victories, paying his opponents to throw fights.
  • Deconstructed in the film The Fan. Robert De Niro's character is convinced that he could have been a major league baseball player, and latches onto Wesley Snipes' character as someone to live vicariously through. Things go downhill fast. Near the end of the movie, it turns out that De Niro's character had never played ball beyond little league.
  • In the film Friday Night Lights, the ex-star of the central football team's obsessing over his regrets turn him into a violent alcoholic. The current team members are painfully aware that a similar fate awaits them after the glory of the sport has long since faded.
  • The Godfather Don Vito Corleone expressed his regret to his son Michael that he couldn't turn the family legit. Had he done it before they would have gone to politics.

    Vito: There could have been a Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.

  • It's a Wonderful Life - everything in George Bailey's life conspires to trap him in Bedford Falls. Sure, he eventually realizes it was probably better for everyone else that way, but Frank Capra doesn't sugarcoat the initial regret and frustration as it all piles onto George's shoulders.
  • Munsen from Kingpin was on his way to becoming a champion bowler until a bunch of guys he tried to hustle chopped off his right hand. Years later, his name is a byword for failure.
  • Ladybugs: Rodney Dangerfield sucks up to the boss to get a soccer coach job, claiming the only reason he didn't get to the pros was because of injury.
  • The saloon madam from The Lone Ranger could have made it as a ballerina had Butch Cavendish not eaten one of her legs.
  • Inverted in Moneyball. Billy Bean is bitter because scouts convinced him that he could be a baseball star and he gave up a college scholarship to play Major League Baseball straight out of high school. Instead of ending up with a degree from Stanford he ended up with a mediocre baseball career that went nowhere.
  • Spoofed with the Mary (Had A Little Lamb) character in Mother Goose Rock 'n' Rhyme, who claims she could have been so much more if only that damn sheep weren't following her everywhere.
  • Used directly in the film Muppet Treasure Island. As the pirates sing (without regret) about the different possible paths they could have taken in life, one of them comments "I coulda been a contender!" , prompting chuckles from the rest of the crew.
  • In Napoleon Dynamite Uncle Rico is this character played for laughs. He firmly believes that if his high-school coach had just let him carry a football during a crucial game back in 1982, that he'd be a Hall of Fame NFL star today. Most of his activity in the movie is spent passive-aggressively abusing his nephews and earning enough money for a time machine to transport himself back to his old high school glory days. Double subverted when it's revealed towards the end of the film that he was a benchwarmer and was never actually in the game.
  • Nixon: Exaggerated by Nixon. He is The Leader of the most powerful country in the world. Even so, that is little compared to his dreams. His tragedy is that is played straight, not parodied. Nixon is full of bitterness:

    John Ehrlichman: You got people dying because he didn't make the varsity football team. You got the Constitution hanging by a thread because the old man went to Whittier instead of Yale.

  • On the Waterfront (Trope Namer). A double-layered irony, as the claim is not even "I coulda been a champion" but merely "I coulda been a contender" — that is, he could have had a chance... at having a chance.
  • The Rocker, in which The Office's Rainn Wilson plays a Pete Best (see the music category below) analog.
  • Rocky
    • The old trainer Mickey Goldmill is crusty and bitter because he was never a success as a fighter.
    • Rocky himself, which is one of the more realistic twists in the franchise. Despite only being thirty, Rocky is past his prime and missed his calling, stating that his legs are going and soon everything's going to go with them. Of course, the sequels changed all this by making him a successful fighter into his 40s, and even brought him back when he was pushing sixty for another fight.
    • Actually Zig-Zagged throughout the series. After winning his first world title he's portrayed as a paper champion in the third before coming back and then having a forced retirement due to blunt-force trauma from the fourth. The last movie mostly ignores that last plot point, but makes makes his past-his-prime status a reality so that they can focus on strength training to make up for his lack of mobility.
  • Subverted in the movie Unbreakable, where Bruce Willis's character faked a serious injury after a car accident as an excuse to get out of a promising future football career so he could have a normal life with his fiancée, and then forgot he faked it through the normal process of memory reevaluation and editing, leading to his dissatisfaction with his "lost chance" at greatness in the movie's present-time.
  • The male lead in Wimbledon is a former tennis hopeful who just never quite made it. Ultimately subverted, as the film ends with him winning Wimbledon, but choosing to retire on a high note.
  • Parodied in You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Zohan's friend refuses to give him a job at his electronics store because the store sucks out people's ambitions. He points out his many employees initially had other dreams but they got stuck at the store and never left.


  • The book Ethan Frome features a young man's frustration over being unable to pursue his scientific interests because of being tied to his small hometown with the illnesses of his parents and wife.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Ned Stark thinks his late brother Brandon would have been the better Lord of Winterfell.
    • Viserys Targaryen II was the longest serving Hand and was already old when he became king. He reigned for only a year and it's thought he could have done the realm more good had he lived.
    • Daemon Blackfyre was considered the greatest uncrowned king of Westeros. His failed rebellion cemented him only as a villain.
    • Prince Baelor Breakspear shared the same reputation as Daemon but he got accidentally killed in a tourney melee.
    • "King" Renly Baratheon was popular but he was assassinated. Thanks to the regime's PR machine, he is remembered as a hero who lifted the siege of the capitol instead of The Usurper that caused the siege in the first place.
  • In Keeping You a Secret, Holland's mother wanted to be a lawyer but never did because she got pregnant in high school. She both resents Holland and wants her to live out her mother's dreams — she relentlessly drives Holland to take advanced classes, become student body president, apply to the country's top universities. She assumes that Holland is going to major in pre-law, and won't let Holland tell her otherwise. Furthermore, she micromanages her daughter's life, even spying on her, constantly telling her that she doesn't want her to "throw away her life" like the mother did.
  • Ursula Vernon wrote a poem which is partly about people who haven't succeeded in life and blame others for it.

    Eventually, it came to you that those people had a future, too,
    but they hadn’t quite realized they weren't going to find it
    and they blamed you for the fact it wasn't here.
    You were not the sort of person that lived in their future.
    You were still too fat and too wobbly and much too weird, and you laughed too loudly
    like a good-natured hyena
    and you were not supportive of their high and lonely destiny.
    And if you were here and their future wasn't
    it was probably your fault

  • Phineas Finn.

    Live Action TV 

  • Game of Thrones:
    • Bran wanted to be a knight, which becomes something of an impossibility after Jaime pushes him out a window. He's very angsty about it at first.
    • Ned and Lyanna actually saw a potential in Hodor to be a warrior when they were younger due to his immense size. His great-grandmother, Old Nan, politely brushes off her then little Lord and Lady's suggestions, citing it doesn't suit their social status for him to train with highborn children. Now imagine him as a Mighty Glacier or Lightning Bruiser, maybe even an Acrofatic badass, if he trained.
      • Even more tragically, Hodor soon after had a seizure that reduced his mind to that of a child and the only word he could speak for the rest of his life was "Hodor". The reason it happened is even more tragic than the incident itself.
  • Al Bundy from Married... with Children is also an ex-high school football star whose plans for fame were dashed with an injury and marriage to his then-girlfriend, after which he was forced to settle into a banal life as a wage-slave shoe salesman.
  • Star quarterback Jason Street suffers a spinal injury in the Friday Night Lights pilot.
  • The Quincy Jones series In The House had LL Cool J play a football star who gets taken out by a knee injury, and starts a gym. His leg eventually heals, and he gets back in the game. Guess what happens?
  • The prevalence of this in sports films is parodied in That Mitchell and Webb Look, with a film about cricket; the coach is bitter because he used to play cricket for a team that reached the "final of the Ashes", shyeah, but he never found fame, because he bowled a wide.

    You bowled a wide in the Ashes final? How can you live with yourself?

  • In Spaced, Marsha tells Daisy about how she could have been an Olympic sprinter had she not been knocked over by her first husband to be and introduced to alcohol. She still shows interest in it, though, on one occasion persuading Daisy to join her on a run.
  • Ted, the co-pilot in Pan Am, used to be a Navy test pilot...until he crashed his plane, ruining his chances of getting into the space program. The worse part is, that it was probably an equipment malfunction but the faulty equipment was manufactured by Ted's father's company and his father killed the investigation to preserve his contracts.
  • Invoked in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will tries to psyche up the college football team for the Big Game, encouraging them to give it their all because "I know some of you might get into the majors, but for most of you, this is the end of the line!", and then starts to go into detail about how their lives will be once their Glory Days end after graduation. It doesn't work.
  • JAG: Bud's college roommate Ron Katz who became a dot com millionaire at one point had asked Bud to become his business partner. Bud ponders in "The Colonel’s Wife" what could have been if he had taken that path. Ultimately, he realizes that if so, he wouldn't have met his wife and had their kid.
  • In Graceland Johnny could have been a US Navy SEAL but on the last day of Hell Week he was hit by a boat. It's subverted because he is not really bitter about it. His time in the Navy got him US citizenship and after leaving the Navy he easily landed a job as a FBI agent.
  • The central premise of Suits is based on a subversion. Mike could have been a great lawyer but the Poisonous Friend influence of Trevor got him expelled from college. When the series starts he is reduced to taking exams for other people for money and is about to be busted for being a drug courier. A chance encounter with Harvey, a top level lawyer in one of the best law firms in the city, gives him a second chance. Harvey is so impressed by Mike that he hires him as his associate even though Mike has no law degree. Mike now has to use all his skills and talent to keep this dream job.
  • Donaldson, the money-grubbing researcher from Utopia claims he was a real scientific high-flyer until he discovered that the SARS epidemic did not actually exist and he was Reassigned to Antarctica for his troubles, and now the only job he can get is testing pet food. He is bitterly resentful of this and keeps trying to sell out the gradual uncovering of The Conspiracy to the very people that demoted him just so he can be rich again.
  • One episode of Marcus Welby MD deals with a promising young boxer who has to end his career due to epilepsy.
  • The UnSub of one episode of Criminal Minds was a former high school football star in a small, football-obsessed town, who was reduced to working as a garbageman after blowing out his knee in his senior year, while his teammates abandoned him and went on to college on scholarships, and had the successful careers and families he believed he should have had. He got his "revenge" on the team by abducting their neglected, soccer-playing daughters and forcing them to kill each other.

    You all have lives, I just clean up your mess. Well now you have to clean up mine.

  • American Horror Story: Freak Show has two examples:
    • Elsa Mars is convinced she would have been a big star if not for Marlene Dietrich eclipsing her as the nation's favorite German entertainer.
    • Paul believes that his handsome face would have made him a star had he been born with a "normal" body. It's also the reason why he decided not to have his face tattooed.

      "I have the face of a pretty lad. Can you imagine this mug on a normal body? I could've ruled the world."

  • Many of the victims in Cold Case died before realizing their full potential.
  • M*A*S*H: In "End Run", SGT. Billy Tyler, a former college football star suffers a severe leg injury in combat and his dream of playing in the N.F.L. is dashed when Hawkeye has to amputate it.
  • Many otherwise brilliant characters from The Wire turned to crime for one reason or another and never became the people they wanted to be. Season 4 focused on Baltimore's faulty education system that forced kids to graduate despite them not being ready.
  • Walter from Breaking Bad could have become rich had his former friends not "betrayed" him. Considering his later actions, maybe they were right in leaving him behind.
  • Scandal:
    • Cyrus Beene is one of the greatest political minds in America, and by all rights a man that should've been President. Unfortunately, Cyrus isn't particularly physically attractive and an unahppy marriage made him come to the realization that he was gay. The former made the Presidency improbable — the latter made it a pipe dream, so Cyrus had to settle for Chief of Staff (all the power, none of the glory). Though he didn't voice it often, it's clear that he's very bitter about it. Essentially, Season Six was him making one last stab at that pipe dream, saying just the right words to manipulate Luna Vargas into doing the dirty work for him.
    • Mellie was first in her class at Harvard Law, and could've been successful on her own like Olivia is had she so wished. She gave that all up for her marriage to Fitz in hopes of becoming First Lady. While that did happen, considering what it cost her, it's obvious some part of Mellie regrets choosing Fitz at all. Mellie even admits that real reason she stuck around after years of a dead marriage and finding out that her husband was cheating on her was in hopes that Fitz would make it up to her by helping her with her own political ambitions, making all the sacrifices worth it, because it had to be.
    • Season Five is Eli forcing Olivia into thinking she's this so he can have more power, as he sees his children's power as his own. Even though she's the successful head of a crisis management firm and has connections and contacts all over the world with very powerful people, Eli firmly believes she could be so much more than that. Thus, he manipulates his "son" Jake Ballard into taking initiative and becoming the National Security Advisor in hopes of convincing Olivia doing similar things. Olivia does, by becoming Mellie's campaign manager — a path that leads her to murdering two US Vice-Presidents and resurrecting B613 with her as Command, all while also doubling as Mellie's Chief of Staff, effectively making her the most powerful person in the world. The Season Six finale implies that Eli has come to regret pushing her that far, even though she's become everything he wanted her to be.


  • The show Unsung on the channel TV One is about black R&B, soul, and gospel artists who didn't manage to make it big.
  • New Jersey band The Gaslight Anthem have a song entitled "I Coul'da Been a Contender" which appears to follow the themes of messed up chances and regret; "You were gonna be my Judy Garland, we were gonna share your tinman heart."
  • The subject, indeed the first line of the chorus, of "Heavyweight Champion of the World" by Reverend and the Makers:

    I could've been a contender,
    Could've been a someone,
    Caught up in the rat race,
    And feeling like a no-one,
    Appearing in the papers,
    With the money and the girls,
    I could've been
    The Heavyweight Champion of the World.

  • "Duchess" by Genesis, about a failed pop star trying to relive her glory days.

    But she dreamed of the times when she sang all her songs
    And everybody cried for more,
    When all she had to do was step into the light
    For everyone to start to roar.

    Newspaper Comics 

  • Ed Crankshaft in Crankshaft was an aspiring baseball player and playing for the Toledo Mud Hens and the Detroit Tigers called him up to the Major Leagues. At the same time, the U.S. entered World War II and he was drafted into the Army.

    Professional Wrestling 

  • Christopher Daniels isn't the least decorated of Ring of Honor's three founding fathers (ironically, that would be first champion and "banned for life" Low Ki) but he is the only one never hold the belt that would become the ROH World Title. This was because he was pulled out of the promotion by TNA during the hot Prophecy/Second City Saints feud and again during his attempt to stop CM Punk from leaving with that very world title. While his TNA tenure wasn't completely unsuccessful, he lacked a World Title run because he was too busy setting up The Worf Effect for wrestlers who either ended up being in the promotion short term such as Sean Morley or were much worse for publicity such as Jeff Hardynote While Christopher Daniels had a DUI arrest in 09, Hardy had been charged with no less than seven felonies. When AJ Styles finally left TNA, Daniels and Frankie Kazarian decided to follow him and he left TNA again (presumably for good). Rather than stay negative, Daniels would return to ROH one more time and set his sights on the ROH television title, openly admitting that he couldn't do everything he used to but also stating he had worked himself into the best shape of his life.(or not, when it was revealed he and Kazarian were the mysterious "Knights Of The Rising Dawn")
  • AJ Styles was the first Ring of Honor

1. Father Barry:   “D & D? What’s that?”
Kayo Dugan:   “Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat.”

This exchange takes place during the secret meeting the priest holds in the basement of the church. It illustrates the depth and longevity of the longshoremen’s bind. Though they all agree, deep down, that the treatment they receive from Johnny Friendly and his goons is unfair and inhuman, speaking out about it might put them in a worse situation—that is, jobless or dead. Living by the code forced on them by the corrupt union has preserved their lives, but they live in a degraded state almost like slaves. To save their own lives, the longshoremen agree to act as if they see and hear nothing. The word torpedoes is slang for Johnny Friendly and his goons, who point weapons of sorts at the longshoremen every day. The goons hang out on the docks as perpetual reminders of Friendly’s strength, and they have a long history of roughing people up. To rat means to reveal injustices or transgressions to a party that’s not immediately involved, such as a lawyer or the Waterfront Crime Commission. It holds the same significance as stool pigeon in the slang of the stevedores.


Edie:   “Which side are you with?”
Terry:   “Me? I’m with me—Terry.”

When nameless thugs ambush the secret meeting, Terry helps Edie escape. As they walk through the park in front of the church, a hesitant Edie tries to figure out who Terry is. She can’t read him because she isn’t familiar with the area or the way the dock works. She doesn’t know who’s who. Terry’s casual answer here reveals a streak of naïveté because, though he may think he’s independent at this point, he’s clearly a pawn of Johnny Friendly and Charlie “the Gent.” He wouldn’t have shown up at the meeting if he were truly on his own. As Terry’s conscience swells inside him, and as he begins to act on that conscience, this statement becomes increasingly true. But at this time, his attempts to distance himself from either side are mere dreaming. Nevertheless, this dreaming reveals his awareness that he wants nothing of the life either side can offer him. Deep down, he’s not a thug, but he’s not a day laborer either. The film traces Terry’s discovery of who that “me” really is.


Terry:   “Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you.”

The night after Terry and Edie walk through the park, Edie finds Terry on the rooftop tending to the pigeons, including Joey’s. Curious about his sensitive side, she agrees to go with him to a saloon, where they have an intimate and revealing conversation. Terry’s statement here indicates the huge philosophical gap between him and Edie. This gap makes their developing relationship all the more powerful, because to understand each other they must attempt to understand an unfamiliar and even unsavory way of living and thinking. Terry’s words summarize a lifetime of being pushed around and having to scrap for every morsel and every bit of self-confidence. In Edie’s worldview, everybody cares about everybody else, while Terry visualizes a dog-eat-dog world in which people do what they have to do in order to survive.


Terry:   “But you know if I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel.”
Father Barry:   “And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?”

After Father Barry hears Terry’s out-of-church confession about his involvement in Joey Doyle’s death, he urges Terry to tell both Edie and the Waterfront Crime Commission, and he gets this response. This brief exchange effectively summarizes Terry’s mounting dilemma and is the thematic crux of the film. Terry must decide whether he wants to risk his life by speaking out against larger, stronger forces, or to live the rest of his life with a secret harbored deep in his heart. Father Barry’s response here indicates that Terry’s duty as a human being is to tell the truth. Otherwise, he’ll live a tortured existence with a cowardly soul. As a priest, Father Barry believes in a glorious afterlife, but only for those who have done their best to cleanse their souls. This conversation foreshadows Terry’s final explosion on the docks in which he reclaims his conscience and forges an individual identity: “I been rattin’ on myself all these years.”


Terry:   “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been someone, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it . . . It was you, Charlie.”

Terry says this to Charlie at the end of the profoundly intimate taxicab conversation where the two tense brothers are alone for the first time in the film. Charlie, who cares deeply for his brother but hasn’t looked out for him properly, allows himself to deny the reason for Terry’s failed boxing career. He condemns mistakenly the rotten trainer who supposedly mismanaged Terry’s skills. But in truth, Charlie’s association with Johnny Friendly meant that the union had a boxer it could control. Through Charlie, Johnny Friendly ordered Terry to tank a big fight, guaranteeing himself a huge payoff by betting on the opponent. Even though Charlie made sure Terry got a bit of cash, Terry complains here that Charlie killed what was really at stake—his soul, his pride, and his self-esteem. This well-known quote reveals the complexity of the brothers’ relationship and expresses Terry’s deep inner pain that the relationship probably cannot be salvaged. The brothers love each other—but Terry now acknowledges his brother’s partial responsibility for his current bind, and he finally realizes that he can escape the label of “bum” only through his own actions.

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