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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.