“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum which is what I am.”
Brando’s famous line is near the end of the movie, but the whole story is built around that line. His character, Terry Malloy, spends the whole movie trying to convince everyone around him, but mostly himself, that he’s not a bum. To him, there’s nothing worse than being a bum. To be a bum, for Terry, is to accept his own weaknesses and failures in life, to have to depend on somebody other than himself, to ask for help, to be vulnerable.
The movie opens with a murder. Terry was unaware that he was being used as a decoy to make a way for the murderer. When he meets and is instantly attracted to the victim’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint in the best performance of her career), she’s the first person he has to convince he’s not a bum. She’c couldn’t be more different from him in background, personality, goals, and ideals. But at first she sees him as a way to hold on to her brother. Then she comes to see her brother in him. She’s conflicted because she knows he’s in with a bad crowd but she sees potential for the same goodness she saw in her brother in Terry. She sees past his rough exterior. She doesn’t need to be convinced that he’s not a bum, but he tries to convince her anyways. Eventually they fall in love, but he’s too busy trying to convince her that he’s not a bum that he can’t tell her, even as innocent as he was, how he was involved with her brother’s death.
Father Barry (Karl Malden, also in the best performance of his career) wants his ministry to make a difference in his community. He wants to live his life for others in a way spreads the love of Jesus to the world. He’s very good at speaking this desire but not as good at living it. He meets both Terry and Edie the night of the murder and tells Edie that he’ll be in the church if she needs him. She harshly confronts him with the truth saying, “Who ever heard of a saint hiding in a church?” That confrontation is exactly what it takes for Father Barry to take his ministry to the waterfront. When he does this, he realizes just like Edie that there’s much more to Terry than Terry is able to see in himself. But of course that means that Terry has to prove to Father Barry that he’s not a bum.
Edie and Father Barry are the people who are able to reach Terry, to help him become the person they see in him. It’s not until near the end of the movie when he says the famous quote that we know he is choosing to allow their influence in his life. To admit that he’s a bum is to allow love into his life. It’s to admit his own wretchedness like anyone who sings Amazing Grace.” When he does this, he’s depressed and in grief because he’s giving up on the person he thought he wanted to be. But he does it as the preface to something that makes it clear that his future decisions will be for the good of others and himself. Being able to say that he’s a bum is the starting point of being able to really live.