On the Waterfront
- Street Date:
- February 19th, 2013
- Reviewed by:
- David Krauss
- Review Date: 1
- February 25th, 2013
- Movie Release Year:
- 108 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
The truly great films have it all - a meaningful story, resonating themes, incisive direction, powerful performances, a literate screenplay, superior cinematography, and a driving narrative force that grabs the attention of an audience and keeps it spellbound from the opening frames to the closing credits. Not many films possess all these elusive components, but 'On the Waterfront' does - in spades. Elia Kazan's gripping study of mob corruption along the docks of New York and one man's willingness to stand up against it is that rare cinematic jewel that's both blistering and tender, romantic and suspenseful, intelligent and entertaining. Featuring Marlon Brando's finest performance (and that includes Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire') and directed with artful realism and keen insight by Kazan, 'On the Waterfront,' almost six decades after it first premiered, remains one of Hollywood's most searing and riveting motion pictures. And this dynamite edition from Criterion gives this unforgettable movie the respect and attention it deserves. The year is still young, but it's impossible to imagine any other classic release eclipsing it.
'On the Waterfront' changed the face of movies with its emphasis on naturalistic photography and acting. Shot almost entirely on location in Hoboken, New Jersey and employing a number of actual longshoremen in bit parts and as extras, the film wears its grit on its sleeve, thrusting its viewers into a rough, lower class milieu among real people who perform back-breaking labor for a meager wage and cow-tow to greedy bosses who bully and exploit them on a daily basis. All the workers abide by the "D and D" (deaf and dumb) code, accepting the culture of corruption and refusing to rat out the powerful syndicate for fear of dire repercussions. Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) runs the outfit and he's anything but. Blustery and ruthless, he's all about the take, and when Joey Doyle decides to snitch, he sends errand boy Terry Malloy (Brando) to lure him out of hiding and to his death. The naive Terry is shocked by the swift retribution ("I thought you were just gonna rough him up a little"), but Joey's fate fits Terry's philosophy of life to a T: "Do it to him before he does it to you."
The horrible deed, however, awakens Terry's dormant conscience. A former boxer whose promising future was thwarted by the mob, Terry has since become a thug, languishing in Friendly's posse, his passions and sensitivity quashed by the macho environment and manipulations of his own brother, Charlie the Gent (Rod Steiger), Johnny's right-hand man. His only refuge is the rooftop pigeon coop he tended with Joey, an oasis of solitude in the urban jungle, where his nurturing nature can flourish. Yet when Joey's devastated sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) convinces the local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), to infiltrate the fraternity and foster positive change, Terry's loyalty begins to waver. Two police investigators (Leif Erickson and Martin Balsam) also exert pressure on Terry to spill the specifics of Joey's demise, serving him with a subpoena to testify at a city hearing. Whether Terry will tow his party's line or turn against his crooked compatriots and redeem his guilty soul forms the crux of the drama, as does Terry's burgeoning romance with Edie, who knows nothing of his involvement in her brother's death.
Socially conscious without being self-conscious, and a film with a preacher that's not overtly preachy, 'On the Waterfront' defends the right to turn on and turn in one's peers if the informer believes it's morally correct. The story's central dilemma, intentionally or not, strikingly mirrors the quandary Kazan himself faced two years earlier when he notoriously (and unapologetically) decided to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee during its rabid investigation into Communist infiltration in the U.S. Of course, Kazan's controversial and unpopular decision to betray former colleagues was seen as an act of cowardice and self-preservation, while Terry's choice is depicted as noble and courageous, but the crisis of conscience the two endured is similar, if coincidental. Though Kazan recognizes the parallels, which add fascinating subtext to the story, he denies the notion he made 'On the Waterfront' to justify and absolve his actions.
Such theories, however, only enhance the reputation of this exceptional motion picture, which seamlessly blends elements of film noir, westerns, and documentaries into its rich fabric of characters and situations. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg fashions dialogue that's lyrical, snappy, and endlessly quotable ("He doesn't need a doctor, he needs a priest"). Sure, there's Brando's iconic and impassioned "I coulda been a contender" speech, but there's also a rousing oration by Father Barry and heart-breakingly tender exchanges between Terry and Edie that evoke visceral responses. Furthermore, Schulberg's intensive research into the longshoreman culture yields a host of vivid characters whose attitudes and reactions never feel contrived. Nor does the obvious bird metaphor. It's no fluke Terry raises pigeons and may become a stool pigeon himself, but like the habitat of his ornithological friends, his soul is also caged, and he yearns to fly away from the waterfront's all-consuming grime and corruption and break free from its binding chains. Elegance and grace epitomize these birds, and the waifish Edie exudes the same qualities, which inspire Terry, who aches for affection, to pursue her.
The location settings brilliantly reflect the hopelessness and despair that engulf the characters, while Kazan's stark imagery lends impact to their respective passions. Boris Kaufman's natural cinematography creates a somber mood, as he flawlessly captures the gray skies, frigid winter cityscapes, dingy tenements, cramped back rooms, dusty warehouses, and dark alleyways that define the dockside environment. Then tack on the one and only film score from musical genius Leonard Bernstein, which combines screaming progressive jazz with the plaintive moans of a solo horn to produce an accompaniment that's as potent and explosive as the on-screen action.
Yet one single element of 'On the Waterfront' stands out above all the rest. Like a lit match in a gas-filled room, the superb performances ignite this film and raise it to a rarefied level. A gallery of acclaimed Method actors populate almost every frame, and five of them garnered Oscar nominations. Brando, of course, leads the list, filing a full-bodied portrayal that mixes street-wise toughness with a fragile delicacy that's beautiful to behold. After the unvarnished barbarism of 'Streetcar' three years before, it's immensely satisfying to see Brando embrace his softer side as he brings an endearing warmth and uneasy confidence to the tortured Terry. His scene in the taxicab with Steiger ("I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am") features some of the best work either actor ever did (and that's saying something), as two thespian heavy hitters go toe-to-toe and knock the proverbial ball out of the park. In a word, it's magic.
Brando also creates fantastic chemistry with Saint in her stunning film debut. Their deep longing and mutual need permeate their magnetic moments together, from the "improvised" glove scene in a park playground to their trepidatious personal discovery in the saloon to their passionate embrace in Edie's apartment. Saint's shyness and conviction instantly win us over, and her natural, unassuming style complements Brando's more meticulous craftsmanship. When Edie says, "But there's a look in his eye" with such tender perception, the line encapsulates Terry's character and the reading cements their relationship even before it really begins. Both actors justly earned Academy Awards for their mesmerizing work and for creating one of the most believable romances ever committed to celluloid.
As the angry, chain-smoking priest who's goaded out of inertia and transformed into a militant advocate for justice, Malden is also brilliant, and his standout portrayal nabbed an Oscar nomination. His impassioned "sermon" to the dock workers after one of their compadres is bumped off in a freak "accident" stirs the soul, and his mentoring of Terry strikes a realistic chord. The young Steiger wows us, too, and though Cobb growls like a lion and shamelessly chews the scenery (as well as his ever-present cigar), he's a brutal force of evil, always commanding our attention. Both men were also Oscar nominated, and if the Screen Actor's Guild was handing out awards in 1954, the cast of 'On the Waterfront' would have certainly won Best Ensemble. From the leads all the way down to the most insignificant extras, there's not a weak link in the bunch.
In all, 'On the Waterfront' received a dozen Academy Award nominations and won eight statuettes. In addition to Brando (Best Actor) and Saint (Best Supporting Actress), the film was honored with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration prizes. A forerunner of the kind of independent picture that would one day become Oscar's darling, 'On the Waterfront' used its low budget, stark locations, and blue collar actors to its advantage, weaving them all into a taut, thrilling, yet lyrical ode to personal evolution, maturation, unabashed courage, and unblemished love.
'On the Waterfront' is a bona fide masterpiece, the kind of film that moves and inspires without pretense or manipulation. It addresses important issues in an intelligent manner, and its simple, unaffected artistry, alternately bold and nuanced presentation, and finely etched portrayals heighten its palpable impact. Yielding new rewards and kernels of brilliance with each viewing, it's a film to experience and scrutinize over and over again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'On the Waterfront' arrives on Blu-ray classily packaged in a Criterion-sized cardboard sleeve. Inside, a fold-out case contains two BD50 dual-layer discs and a 48-page illustrated booklet. Disc One houses the film in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, along with all the supplements, while Disc Two contains the film in both the 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios. (More on the different video treatments of 'On the Waterfront' in the video review section below.) Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 for all three versions and default audio is LPCM monoaural. There's also a newly minted DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that can be accessed through the audio menu. The handsomely designed booklet features cast and crew listings, transfer notes, several illustrations, and four text pieces, including director Elia Kazan's own defense of his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by Malcolm Johnson that inspired the film, and a profile of Father John Corridan, the real-life model for the movie's Father Barry, by the screenwriter of 'On the Waterfront,' Budd Schulberg.
Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
'On the Waterfront' was caught in the crosshairs during a transitional period in cinema history, as studios began developing the widescreen process to combat the encroaching threat of television. When Kazan's film went into production, Columbia Pictures abruptly mandated all its movies be shot so they could be presented in both 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios to accommodate various theater preferences and projection capabilities. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman, however, cleverly split the difference at 1.66:1, making sure to leave room at the top and bottom of the frame to facilitate a full image. Ironically, though, 'On the Waterfront' has rarely been shown in its preferred format. It premiered in most theaters in 1954 at 1.85:1, which cuts off a bit of information at the top and bottom of the screen. The open-matte 1.33:1 version played exclusively on television and in prior home video releases, but here, for the first time, Criterion presents all three aspect ratios, so viewers can choose the format they prefer. The 1.66:1 version has been rightfully designated the default format and resides on Disc One. It presents the most pleasing and balanced composition, and is the manner in which both Kazan and Kaufman preferred the film to be viewed. The 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 renditions are both included on Disc Two.
Kaufman's Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography combines gritty naturalism with core noir elements to produce a stunning image that's always been difficult to faithfully reproduce in the home video realm. Criterion, however, has done a spectacular job, creating a new digital transfer in 4k resolution from the original 35mm camera negative. It's not perfect, but 'On the Waterfront' was never meant to look perfect. Here, the realism is uncompromised, with medium grain enhancing the tenement settings and rough dockside exteriors. Some of the solid backgrounds, especially the sky, appear a little noisy at times, and a few scenes suffer from a nagging bit of softness, but on the whole, the image is clear and well modulated.
Shot in the dead of winter, 'On the Waterfront' captures the frigid conditions with marvelous accuracy, from hazy, monochromatic street scenes to the harsh glare of the sun. You can see the steam emanating from the actors' mouths and feel the textures of the tattered jackets and scuffed hats that adorn the dock workers. Though the gray scale varies in intensity depending on the scene, there's a consistency to the look of 'On the Waterfront' that oftentimes lends it a documentary feel. Blacks are denser and contrast is stronger in indoor shots, although exterior nocturnal sequences brim with shadowy depth. Whites are vivid, too, and background elements, such as the venetian blinds in the taxi cab and stained glass in the church exude fine levels of detail.
The source material is practically spotless, allowing full immersion in the involving tale, and no digital enhancements of deficiencies disrupt the spell. Close-ups caress Brando's iconic face, the unspoiled loveliness of Saint, and the craggy, weathered visages of the downtrodden laborers. Even the wire cages of the pigeon coops are sharp and resist shimmering. Without a doubt, 'On the Waterfront' has never looked better, and this superior Criterion effort makes this unforgettable film even more powerful.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Two audio options grace the 'On the Waterfront' disc, offering slightly different soundscapes. The default selection is a lossless monaural track remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic tracks, and it most closely resembles what the film sounded like upon its initial release. Aside from a bit of surface noise afflicting the opening credit sequence, the track is free of any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, and pumps out solid audio. Sometimes the music overpowers the action and dialogue - a deficiency of the film's original mix and a fact that rankled Kazan over the years - but only a few lines are lost as a result. Leonard Bernstein's innovative and highly active score does test the limits of the dynamic scale, with its bombastic highs and mellow lows, but no distortion creeps in, and the horns and strings sound wonderfully pure, bright, and full.
Dialogue can be problematic at times, but that's mostly due to the mumbling of both Brando and the longshoremen, as well as their New York dialects and the music crescendos. Bass frequencies are strong, with elements such as foghorns and truck rumbles wielding appropriate weight, and accents like shattering glass and screeching tires are crisp and distinct.
The newly designed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track was also created from the original 35mm magnetic tracks, as well as the original stereo music recordings. This mix sounds a bit smoother and warmer than the monaural track, even though most of the audio is still anchored up front. Dialogue issues are identical, but the music possesses a broader feel with the addition of the rear speakers. Nuances are also a bit more pronounced, with ambient bar noise and exterior atmospherics easier to pick up. While some manufactured 5.1 tracks sound processed and artificial, this one seamlessly blends into the film's fabric.
Both audio options supply high-quality sound that beautifully complements this film classic and honors the only film score of composer Leonard Bernstein. I recommend giving both a try and deciding for yourself which one you prefer.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
A plethora of riches comprise this comprehensive supplemental package that leaves no stone unturned in the examination of 'On the Waterfront.' Criterion always does an excellent job in the extras department, but the studio has gone above and beyond here, and classics aficionados will appreciate all the probing material.
- Audio Commentary – A terrific commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel and author Jeff Young, both of whom have interviewed and written books on Kazan, provides a wealth of fascinating insights, anecdotes, and bits of trivia concerning this classic picture and Kazan's personal connection to it. The two men talk about the film's ripped-from-the-headlines background, bitterly cold shoot, authentic locations, and Brando's genius. Schickel calls 'On the Waterfront' "the last great black-and-white movie" and "apotheosis of Actor's Studio acting," while both discuss how the story paralleled Kazan's own experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee and quote their respective conversations with Kazan. They compare Kazan's penchant for cool blondes to Hitchcock's similar obsession, examine the movie's often "artless" presentation, and note Frank Sinatra was originally slated to play Terry Malloy. (One can only shudder to think how that would have turned out.) This is a great dialogue between two intelligent film scholars, and their relaxed demeanor and comfortable chemistry make the track fly by. Many commentaries are just a bunch of hot air; this one's a breath of fresh air, and well worth a listen.
- Interview: "Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones" (HD, 18 minutes) – In this 2012 discussion, Scorsese and Jones, who co-directed the documentary 'A Letter to Elia,' reflect on Kazan's masterwork. Scorsese dominates the conversation, remembering the profound effect 'On the Waterfront' had on him as a young boy and his "special connection" to it. In addition to talking about the film's music, photography, and locations, the two men compare the movie to 'Force of Evil' and 'Citizen Kane,' and examine the similarities between Brando and another legendary cinema anti-hero, John Garfield.
- Documentary: 'Elia Kazan: An Outsider' (SD, 53 minutes) – "A mass of ambivalence" is how Kazan describes himself in this probing 1982 profile that provides an intimate look at the man and his career. Composed almost entirely of comments by Kazan taken from a series of interviews with French film critic Michel Ciment, the documentary allows the director the opportunity to expound on his Turkish immigrant background, tenure at The Group Theatre, and the genesis of the famed Actor's Studio, which he co-founded. Kazan explains the finer points of method acting, recalls working with Brando and Robert De Niro, recounts how he cast James Dean in 'East of Eden,' defends his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and discusses his various novels and personal relationships. Unfortunately, only clips from 'Baby Doll' and 'America, America' are used to illustrate his work, but Kazan's frank remarks and vibrant personality keep this well-made portrait lively and interesting.
- Documentary: "I'm Standin' Over Here Now: Reconsidering 'On the Waterfront'" (HD, 45 minutes) – Another strong documentary, this 2012 collection of interviews with five noted authors, editors, and film scholars covers all aspects of 'On the Waterfront,' from its earliest origins (playwright Arthur Miller first brought the idea of a longshoreman movie to Kazan) all the way through the film's premiere, success, and legacy. Much attention is given to analyzing Kazan's character, his suspicious nature, association with the Communist party, and decision to name names. (Author David Thomson believes Kazan blossomed artistically in the years following his testimony, noting "Being a better artist sometimes means being a worse human being.") We also learn about the real-life figures upon whom some of the characters are based, screenwriter Budd Schulberg's extensive first-hand research, how the movie delicately strives to advance civil rights, and how the naturalism of 'On the Waterfront' impacted actors and their profession. All the major performances are meticulously examined, as well as the striking cinematography and the movie's "acute sense of place." Though somewhat static visually, this is nevertheless an absorbing and informative documentary that no fan of this classic should miss.
- Interview: Eva Marie Saint (HD, 11 minutes) – Still beautiful at age 88, Saint sits down to reminisce about 'On the Waterfront' and her experiences making her debut film in this 2012 interview. She recalls her initial nerves, her chemistry with Brando, and how, contrary to popular belief, the famous glove scene resulted from a mishap that occurred during rehearsal - not during shooting - and was recreated on screen. Saint terms Brando and Kazan the best actor and director with whom she ever worked, and describes how the scene in which she and Brando are pursued by a speeding truck ended up being more realistic (and frightening) than she anticipated. She also compares Kazan's directing style to that of Alfred Hitchcock, who guided her through 'North by Northwest,' in this wonderfully nostalgic and sincere conversation.
- Interview: Elia Kazan (SD, 12 minutes) – In this 2001 interview with film critic and historian Richard Schickel, the director lauds the 'On the Waterfront' screenplay as "perfect," and says of the movie as a whole, "This was as close [as I ever came] to making a film exactly the way I wanted it." Kazan remembers "hanging out in Hoboken" to absorb the attitudes of the dock workers and meeting a real-life prototype of Terry Malloy; how producer Darryl F. Zanuck, despite his penchant for socially conscious pictures, refused to bankroll the production; and how eventual producer Sam Spiegel drove writer Budd Schulberg crazy with script revisions, but the two rose above the antagonisms to create a terrific work. Kazan admires the uncanny manner in which Brando could balance brutal toughness with a delicate tenderness, and confesses the iconic cab scene that features the immortal line, "I coulda been a contender," was basically self-directed by Brando and Rod Steiger. Kazan is always a kinetic presence, and here, even at age 92, he's as clear-headed and feisty as ever.
- Interview: Thomas Hanley (HD, 12 minutes) – 'On the Waterfront' employed many local Hoboken non-actors, and Thomas Hanley was one of them. He portrays young Tommy Collins, the tenement boy who helps Terry tend his rooftop pigeon coop and becomes disillusioned when Terry turns snitch. In this revealing 2012 interview, Hanley looks back at his experiences, recalling how he lived in the building where much of the movie was shot, how he was cast, the embarrassment he felt about acting in a film, the familiar Hoboken locations, and how Kazan purposely antagonized him to provoke emotion. He also shares his fond memories of Brando, and details his 50-plus-year tenure as an actual longshoreman (he joined the ranks at age 16, just two years after 'On the Waterfront' premiered) and the corruption that existed then and continues to this day. With candor and insight, Hanley provides another unique perspective that enhances this enduring classic.
- Featurette: "Who Is Mr. Big?" (HD, 26 minutes) – Author and waterfront expert James T. Fisher chronicles the fascinating real-life history behind Kazan's film. We learn how Irish immigrants dominated the port and made it their "fiefdom," creating a hierarchy that both protected and exploited the workers, and how the self-regulating system hinged on a code of silence that brushed nefarious deeds and illegalities under the rug. Fisher also discusses the birth of the waterfront priest, the explosive public hearings generated by a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by Malcolm Johnson (which inspired Budd Schulberg to write his screenplay), and links historical figures, such as Father Pete Corridan, Joe Ryan, and Bill McCormick (the prototype for the mob boss seen fleetingly after Terry's testimony), to their fictional counterparts in the movie. (Terry Malloy is a composite of many characters Schulberg encountered during his exhaustive immersion in the longshoreman culture.) Though conditions have improved on the docks over time, Fisher explains how the workers ultimately refused to end the corruption when they had the chance, allowing the Johnny Friendlys of the world to reclaim their position of power despite the efforts of Terry Malloys and Father Barrys. This 2012 featurette is another first-class offering from Criterion that provides essential background and context necessary to fully understand and appreciate 'On the Waterfront.'
- Featurette: "Contender: Mastering the Method" (SD, 25 minutes) – 'On the Waterfront' was the first movie to fully showcase method acting, and this 2001 featurette scrutinizes the famous taxicab scene between Brando and Rod Steiger that epitomizes the philosophy. Critic Richard Schickel, TV host James Lipton, actor Martin Landau, Brando biographer Patricia Bosworth, author Jeff Young, and Steiger himself analyze the scene from every angle, discussing its slapdash shooting, various nuances, Brando's inherent insecurities, Steiger's anger over having to shoot his close-ups with a stand-in (Brando was dismissed early that day so he could see his shrink), and the basic tenets of The Method. Rarely does any single sequence from any film deserve such attention, but this one does, and this piece honors it to the fullest.
- Video Essay: "Jon Burlingame on Leonard Bernstein's Score" (HD, 20 minutes) – The legendary composer only wrote one film score during his storied career, and it was for 'On the Waterfront.' This absorbing video essay examines the "groundbreaking" nature of the music through the three major themes and how they complement the action and dovetail during key moments. We also learn Bernstein played jazz piano during the bar scene; both Kazan and Schulberg complained about the score, but respect it; and possible reasons why Bernstein didn't win the Oscar for his work. Film clips and stills illustrate the various points and engender additional admiration for the potent and moving music.
- Featurette: "On the Aspect Ratio" (HD, 5 minutes) – This fascinating featurette examines the multiple aspect ratios of 'On the Waterfront' and how cinematographer Boris Kaufman shot the film using the "shoot and protect" technique to allow it to be exhibited in various formats. Examples of each ratio are shown, along with a discussion of their respective pros and cons. Cinephiles will definitely want to check this one out.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) – The original preview for 'On the Waterfront' touts the picture's greatness, but also amusingly terms its story "as warm and moving as 'Going My Way' (but with brass knuckles!)." What advertising hack wrote that ridiculous copy?!
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no high-def exclusives.
Though the year is still young, Criterion's Blu-ray edition of 'On the Waterfront' easily leads the pack in the race for 2013's best classic release. Elia Kazan's scorching study of blue-collar corruption and the lone wolf who dares to break ranks and expose the mob's dirty deeds remains relevant, riveting, and deeply affecting almost six decades after it first wowed its way to eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Marlon Brando gives the performance of his career, and exceptional support from a superior cast, as well as extensive location shooting and naturalistic photography, lend this memorable picture a supremely authentic feel. Criterion's high-def presentation features top-notch video and audio transfers, and enough fascinating extras to make every viewer an authority on this classic film. Like the best movies, it satisfies on many levels, kicking us in the gut, tugging our heart strings, and forcing us to think about and reflect on a variety of substantive themes. It also inspires unabashed admiration for the sheer talent on display in front of and behind the camera. From the opening frames straight through to its brutal and inspiring finish, 'On the Waterfront' proves it's way more than a contender; it's one of Hollywood's truly great films, and an absolute must own.
- 2 BD-50 Dual-Layer Discs
- 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
- English LPCM Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
- English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
- English SDH
- Audio Commentary
- Video Essay
- Theatrical Trailer
- 48-page Booklet
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