The film was shot by Elia Kazan at the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It was originally offered to 20th Century Fox by Kazan, but was turned down by Darryl F. Zanuck because the film was shot in black & white and in the academy ratio of 1.37. Fox at the time was big into Cinemascope wide screen pictures. The film may have been exhibited in a few theaters at 1.66 or even 1.85, but was shot, and exhibited, in 1954, at 1.37:1.
The idea for the film began with an expose series written for The New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson. The 24 articles won him a Pulitzer Prize and were reinforced by the 1948 murder of a New York dock hiring boss which woke America to the killings, graft and extortion that were endemic on the New York waterfront. Budd Schulberg was captivated by the subject matter, devoting years of his life to absorbing everything he could about the milieu. He became a regular fixture on the waterfront, hanging out in West Side Manhattan and Long Island bars, interviewing longshore-union leaders and getting to know the outspoken priests from St Xavier's in Hell's Kitchen.
The leading characters were based on real people: Terry Malloy was based on longshoreman and whistle-blower Anthony De Vincenzo; Father Barry was based on waterfront priest John M. Corridan; Johnny Friendly was based on mobster Albert Anastasia.
The movie's line "I coulda been a contender." was voted as the #7 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
The only film that wasn't a musical for which Leonard Bernstein wrote the incidental music.
The original title was simply "Waterfront" until Columbia learned that there was a television series by that name.
The part of Terry Malloy was originally written for John Garfield who died before the film was made.
The real-life model for the film's Johnny Friendly character (played by Lee J. Cobb) was International Longshoremen's Association boss Michael Clemente (Johnny Friendly also has aspects of former Murder Inc. head Albert Anastasia, who was a top enforcer for the crime family that ran the Hoboken docks, the Luciano - later Genovese - family). In 1979 Clemente and other members of the Genovese family were indicted for corruption and racketeering on the New York waterfront.
The role of Terry's brother Charley was originally offered to Lawrence Tierney. Tierney asked for too much money so the role went to Rod Steiger who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
The scene where Eva Marie Saint drops her glove and Marlon Brando picks it up and puts it on his hand was unplanned. Saint dropped her glove accidentally in rehearsal and Brando improvised the rest. Elia Kazan loved the new business and asked them to repeat it for the take.
The script was originally turned down by Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox on the grounds that the gritty drama didn't fit well with the policy at the time of creating lavish productions for the studio's Cinemascope format.
The shooting schedule occasionally had to be worked around Marlon Brando's appointments with his psychiatrist in Manhattan.
The taxicab scene between Terry and Charlie, one of the most famous scenes in the cinema, was not improvised, as Marlon Brando claimed in his autobiography. When Brando did initially improvise during the shooting of the scene, and Rod Steiger followed his lead, Elia Kazan yelled, "Stop the shit, Buddy!" to Brando, using his nickname. The two actors stuck to Budd Schulberg's script after that.
The Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) line, "You don't understand. I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody instead of a bum, which I am." was selected at No. 3 on American Film Institute's (AFI) 100 YEARS..100 QUOTES.
Was one of the first films named to the National Film Preservation Board's National Film Registry in 1989.
When Elia Kazan and his original screenwriter Arthur Miller originally showed the script to Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, Columbia executives objected to the script as being "atni-union", as they feared union retaliation. Cohn recommended that union officials be changed to communists.
While filming the scene in the back of the cab Marlon Brando would leave every day for a psychiatrist appointment before Rod Steiger could film his lines with a double standing in for Brando. Steiger was very hurt by Brando's apparent disregard to a fellow colleague and was not able to forgive him until many years later.
While preparing for the role, Marlon Brando became friendly with a young Al Lettieri, who was an acquaintance of real-life Mafiosos. Brando based much of his performance on Lettieri, who became his co-star in The Night of the Following Day and The Godfather.