Many dramatic films have an unquestionable basis in reality, whether they choose to advertise it or not. Elia Kazan's seminal On the Waterfront (1954) examines Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a down-and-out ex-boxer who's making ends meet as a dockworker for crooked union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb). Much to Terry's surprise, he's used in the murder of co-worker Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) before Doyle gets to testify against Friendly for some of his more unsavory actions. Terry is initially accepting of this role, both due to his current employment position and the fact that his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly's right hand man. This position gradually changes, however, after Terry meets Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of his dead co-worker, as well as supportive priest Father Barry (Karl Malden).
Much like 1957's 12 Angry Men (incidentally, also co-starring Lee J. Cobb with cinematography by Boris Kaufman), On the Waterfront spends most of its time stewing over one man's wavering conscience in the face of support and opposition. It also doubled as a substitute for director Elia Kazan's testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee two years before the film's release, in which Kazan provided the names of eight friends who were at one time members of the Communist Party (which he was also briefly part of during the 1930s). Terry Malloy's eventual desire to follow his moral compass, whatever the cost, was never officially stated to provide the basis for Kazan's film, but such ethical similarities are almost impossible to ignore. Even if you don't buy the connection, On the Waterfront remains a gripping and accessible slice of 1950s cinema that earned every one of its twelve Academy Award nominations.
While the film's true power lies in its objectively strong construction and pitch-perfect performances by Marlon Brando, newcomer Eva Marie Saint and more, any film's subjective power hinges solely on your acceptance of its world. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese---an avid fan of On the Waterfront and co-director of A Letter to Elia with Kent Jones, both of whom appear elsewhere on this release---once admitted that this was the first film to depict characters that he saw in everyday life. I don't share this admission, but it's a testament to On the Waterfront's power that it's not my world and I still enjoy it immensely. I suppose you don't have to be a dockworker or deal with a rough union boss to understand that greed corrupts, bullying doesn't stop with adulthood and it's important to take any little stand you can.
Criterion's new Blu-Ray release highlights the film's broad appeal and lasting impact, as evidenced by a handful of new interviews, featurettes and even an assortment of extras carried over from the 2005 Sony DVD release. There's even support for the film's multiple aspect ratios, a common occurrence in the decade when television posed enough of a threat for theaters to fully enforce the widescreen format.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in three different aspect ratios (1.66:1, 1.85: and 1.33:1, for reasons detailed in both the accompanying booklet and a featurette on the first disc), On the Waterfront looks absolutely perfect in every conceivable way. Boris Kaufman's impeccable black-and-white cinematography retains a healthy amount of film grain, black levels and shadow detail are superb, textures are crisp and contrast has not been artificially boosted. The transfer was taken from a recent 4K restoration and represents the best home video presentation of On the Waterfront to date. Fans will be extremely pleased with Criterion's efforts, both for the immaculate presentation of the image and the choice of multiple aspect ratios.
DISCLAIMER: These promotional images are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Two audio options are available: the original LPCM 1.0 mono mix and a newer DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio remix. The latter is tastefully done and broadens Leonard Bernstein's music cues while adding some mild depth and general ambiance to background effects. Purists will undoubtedly stick with the original, which is obviously thinner in comparison; in both cases, dialogue and music are always crisp and well-defined, free from glaring instances of hiss, pop and crackle. Both are quality efforts and, once again, it's good that viewers get a choice. Optional English SDH subtitles are available during the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the menu interface retains Criterion's typical format; it's clean and organized nicely, but the menu transitions are a little on the clunky side. This two-disc release is packaged in a handsome digipak case with a slip sleeve, much like their treatment of Seven Samurai
and several other releases. It's most likely due to the included 48-page Booklet
that's also tucked inside, which includes essays and articles by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, journalist Malcolm Johnson and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, as well as a 1952 statement by Elia Kazan and terrific illustrations by Sean Phillips
. A classy presentation overall.
Bonus Features Disc One
offers a treasure trove of film-specific supplements, leading off with a 2005 Audio Commentary
featuring Kazan biographers Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, originally included with Sony's DVD release from the same year. Other vintage but previously available supplements include "Elia Kazan: An Outsider"
(below left, an hour-long documentary by Annie Tresgot), a brief 2001 Kazan Interview
by Schickel, "Contender: Mastering the Method"
(a 2001 breakdown of the famous taxi scene, featuring James Lipton, Jeff Young, Martin Landau, Rod Steiger and more), as well as the film's original Theatrical Trailer
A number of brand new, exclusive extras have been created for this Criterion release as well. Leading off is an Interview with filmmaker Martin Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones, who share their thoughts and reflections on Kazan's film. Scorsese has long been a fan of Kazan's work, citing him as a major influence in his cinematic development, which makes this brief but fascinating interview a worthwhile inclusion.
Two more cast-specific Interviews are also included, as we hear from Eva Marie Saint (who made her film debut with On the Waterfront) and Thomas Hanley, who portrayed young Tommy Collins. These separate interviews are invaluable for obvious reasons, as it's always nice to hear from those who were part of a film as it unfolded. A like-minded Documentary entitled "I'm Standin' Over Here Now" provides a general overview of the film's production and influence in the form of author and biographer interviews.
The behind-the-scenes extras continue with "Who is Mr. Big?", an interview with author James Fisher which details the period that On the Waterfront depicts, as well as New York City businessman William "Mr. Big" McCormack. The film's music is also analyzed in "Leonard Bertstein's Score" (above right), in which author and critic Jon Burlingame pays tribute to the prolific composer, conductor and pianist.
"On the Aspect Ratio", is a dissection of the film's presentation in three separate aspect ratios for this release, which supports the alternate theatrical framing of Kazan's film and the home video presentation. It goes without saying, but this level of detail will undoubtedly please fans of the film; though the 1.66:1 framing is considered the "default" as presented here, it's great that we're finally getting a choice.
Disc Two, of course, presents On the Waterfront in alternate 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios. These supplements are presented in a mixture of 480p and 1080p; unfortunately, only the main feature includes optional subtitles. It's baffling that Criterion continues this practice, especially at their high price points.
Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is essential American cinema, whether you enjoy it for the performances, the stunning visuals or the social message. It's a highly entertaining and accessible slice of drama, and the controversial actions of director Elia Kazan during that decade only make On the Waterfront more subversively interesting. Criterion's two-disc Blu-Ray release serves up a flawless technical presentation and a generous assortment of vintage and new bonus features, many of which make their debut here. Whether you're a long-time fan or new to On the Waterfront, this is a pricey but invaluable release that will undoubtedly be on many "Best of 2013" lists. A DVD Talk Collector's Series title, hands down.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.