“I coulda had class – I coulda been a contender,” complains a desperate Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) in one of the most iconic movies of the last century.

On the Waterfront won every Oscar that mattered in 1954 (from Best Picture to Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director) – and if that fact is not enough to raise an eyebrow, perhaps the story itself will.  Superficially a tale about mobs, unions, and what we affectionately call “the triumph of the human spirit,” the film tells a surprising story of redemption amidst gritty realism.  This has, of course, been done before (and many times since) – but On the Waterfront offers some of its own unique variations on the theme.

Perhaps the most notable variation comes in the form of waterfront minister Father Barry, whose presence in the film was inspired by an actual Jesuit priest working at the docks of Manhattan.  Father Barry’s role in the fight against mob violence is as invaluable as his methods are unorthodox.  The docks are Barry’s church, he is at pains to tell the workers, “If you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront you’ve got another guess coming!”

With the help of Edie Doyle (played by Eva Marie Saint), it is Father Berry who convinces Terry that his soul is worth more than his life.  It is, in other words, one man’s real and robust faith that turns a bum into “a contender.”