How far should the Church go in encouraging social activism? And how deeply should a parish priest involve his flock in political protests that put their lives in danger?

Most people remember On the Waterfront, which won five Oscars in 1954, for Marlon Brando's bravura performance as a dockworker who stands up to union lawlessness. They usually forget that director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire) and screen-writer Budd Schulberg (A Face in the Crowd) also dramatize the role of the Church in igniting that corrupt man's conscience to do the right thing. Without a parish priest and a female Catholic college student goading him on, the evil of the New York longshoremen's union would have remained unchecked.

Union leader, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), rules “the fastest piers in the fastest harbor” with an iron hand, shaking down shipowners and taking kickbacks from workers who need jobs. He has a soft spot in his heart for former prizefighter, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), whose brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) is his right-hand man. Terry is given only the cushiest assignments in return for which he owes Johnny certain favors. Terry's hobby is feeding and training pigeons on a tenement roof, and he sets up a meeting with union officials for fellow longshoreman and bird-lover, Joey Doyle, as per Johnny's instructions. When Joey is later found dead, the other dockworkers assume it's because he had agreed to testify against the union at a crime commission hearing.

The local parish priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to comfort Joey's family, but his sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), a student at a nearby Catholic college, doesn't think that's good enough. She wants justice for her dead brother and his fellow workers. “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?” she asks.

Father Barry takes her challenge to heart and organizes a meeting of dissident union members. Terry is sent by Johnny to spy on the gathering, which is held in the church. “How can we call ourselves Christians and protect these union leaders with our silence?” the priest demands, using the workers'faith to turn them against Johnny.

Union goons attack the dissidents as they leave the meeting. Nevertheless, Father Barry persuades another dock-worker to testify against the union, but he too is killed in what looks like a work-related accident. In one of the movie's most compelling scenes, the priest stands by the dead man's body and exhorts the other longshoremen to take action. “Some people think the crucifixion happened only on Calvary,” he cries. “But everytime the mob puts pressure on a good man, it's a crucifixion.”

The union goons pelt the priest with garbage, but he refuses to shut up. “Everytime you stand up for the truth.” he continues, “Jesus stands with you.”

Terry is moved by Father Barry's words and confesses to the priest his involvement in Joey Doyle's death. The cleric isn't a touchy-feely, I-hear-your-pain kind of guy. Rather than wallow with Terry in his self-pity, he sternly tells the ex-prizefighter he must go further. With encouragement from Edie, Terry agrees to talk to the crime commission.

In the movie's most famous scene, he justifies his decision to his brother while riding in back of a mob limousine. The sequence is still electrifying. Terry explains how Johnny made him throw a fight he should have won. “I could have been a contender,” he wails. “I could have been somebody instead of a bum.”

Johnny pulls out all the stops to keep Terry from testifying. In retaliation, the ex-prizefighter goes after him with a gun. Father Barry dissuades Terry from this vigilante justice by coldcocking him with an uppercut, then relieving him of his weapon. The cleric holds to a model of the priesthood that includes a kind of super-masculine, two-fisted behavior that's gone out fashion in recent years.

On the Waterfront is Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Its message is a hard-edged version of Catholic social teaching that praises Christians who risks their lives for justice and truth.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer Writes from Los Angeles. NEXT WEEK: Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire.