On the Waterfront: The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review
Posted by Michael Weyer on 03.03.2013
Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando's masterpiece arrives on Blu-Ray in a briliant set with extras to enhance an already powerful piece of American filmmaking.
On the Waterfront the Criterion Collection
There’s a sad tendency of many actors who were utter genius in their prime to digress in later years to rather hammy and over-the-top personas that make them near-parodies of themselves. Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, they’re all good examples of that, people laughing at them more than remembering how amazing they were. Perhaps the epitome of this example is Marlon Brando. Newer film fans know him only by his post-Godfather career of ridiculous roles, overweight and idiotic films like The Island of Dr. Moreau. But those classic film fans know that in his prime, Brando was, quite simply, the greatest actor ever seen. He began a fantastic new style of moody performance, getting deep into characters to make them true flesh and blood, not just a film role and inspired all those above stars and many more.
Without a doubt, the height of Brando’s power is On the Waterfront. The drama was the powerhouse of the 1955 Academy Awards, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director Elia Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Actor Brando, Supporting Actress Eva Marie Saint and three more. It’s ranked eighth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films ever made and the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech is ranked third on their list of the 100 greatest quotes. It’s that rare beast of a film that has almost no negative reviews and its work has inspired hundreds of filmmakers since. If ever a movie was worthy of the Criterion Collection, this is it. For the Blu-ray debut, the company pulls out the stops to deliver a fantastic presentation that does justice to what remains one of the finest American masterpieces ever created.
Terry Malloy (Brando) is a former boxer, now working at the waterfront docks of New Jersey. The area is owned with an iron fist by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a mob-connected union boss whose willingness to kill anyone who tries to talk about the poor working conditions convinces the dockworkers to play “D and D (deaf and dumb”) rather than talk. Terry is willing to go along with that as his brother Charley “the Gent” (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right hand man. When Terry’s good friend Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner) is killed in an ambush Terry inadvetedly helped set up, the man is rocked. Guilt stricken, he tries to look out for Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who has just talked priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) into trying to foment action against the union, despite the dangers. Soon, Terry is put between what’s right and loyalty to family as the darkness of the battle takes hold.
The themes of Waterfront have been long debated by film fans and it’s obvious what the central conceit is. For all his brilliance as a filmmaker, Kazan was haunted to his dying day by his decision to name those involved with the Communist Party during the infamous witchunts of the early 1950’s, leading some to be blacklisted. He wasn’t the only one do so (Schulberg for one) but he was the most high-profile and it cost him a lot of good will when it came out after the release of Waterfront. Indeed, when the Academy announced they were giving Kazan a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999, it sparked huge outrage and people in the audience visibly refused to applaud him on stage. Kazan never apologized for his actions and thus Waterfront is seen by most as his defense, the idea that you have to stand against the powerful and inform on friends if it’s the right thing to do. However, when you watch the film today, you’re able to ignore the outside influences as it does not take away from the masterful work before us.
Kazan was always a bit ahead of his time with his film style. His frank and brutal take on New York was a landmark, showcasing how dark the town truly was and his use of shadows and shooting angles gave it a flavor that no other film had. A key aid is Boris Kaufman (who won a well-deserved Oscar for the film) whose cinematography pulls us into this world, from the pigeon cages on the roof of Terry’s apartment to dark streets to the waterfront itself in its brutal glory. Kazan was also known for his ability to embrace improvisation such as the famous scene where Marie Saint accidentally drops a club in a walk in the park and Brando picks it up and caresses it, showing the wonderful connection growing between us. This is truly Kazan’s crowning glory as a director, a master storyteller weaving a wonderful landscape for us to be pulled into. He’s aided by Schulberg’s great script, unique for its time with how it sounds like the way people really talk and capturing the flavor of 1950’s New York and New Jersey perfectly.
But it’s Brando who dominates. To watch him here is to see not a performance but rather a force of nature, one that grabs you and doesn’t let you go until the final credit. He’s a man whose pride has long been beaten out of him but the spark is there to be fanned. That moment where he confronts his brother on how the latter forced him to throw a key fight years before has been parodied so much but watch it and you can feel the emotion pouring out of Terry, the agony and pain of what he could have been and that it’s his own brother who’s responsible. It’s utterly amazing watching him blossom as Terry’s relationship with Edie and the talks from Ryan to realize it’s time to make a stand at last. Brando’s mastery allows him to speak volumes without uttering a single word, his face alone able to tell you everything in his soul and creating a wondrous story for movie fans to enjoy. It’s truly a brilliant performance for the ages, Brando’s greatest ever and reminds you why he’s so respected and beloved by film fans today.
Thankfully, rather than let Brando take over too much, Kazan has him backed by a first-rate cast. Like Brando, Steiger was better known for his hammy performances later in his life but at this time, he was a fantastic actor, imbuing Charley with the air of a man who’s long gotten used to his lot in life and just makes do with it. Brando may get the kudos for their taxi scene but Steiger matches him as Charley is obviously moved by his brother’s words, leading him to a hard choice that changes things dramatically. It’s amazing to realize this was Eva Marie Saint’s first film as she carries herself with the air of a veteran, the seeming cliché of the innocent woman done away with as she showcases amazing drive and passion to clean up the system that killed her brother. That she holds her own with Brando says volumes, the two having a fiery chemistry that makes you believe in their young love growing. Malden uses his usual gruff attitude as the priest tired of the bosses pushing the workers around and ready to fight back, not afraid to get his own hands dirty in order to get God’s work done and a highlight of every scene he’s in. Cobb sinks his teeth into the part of Friendly, dominating and exploding with rage at the slightest sign of disobedience, letting you believe this is a man who easily terrifies these longshoremen and cold in his business dealings. There’s also slews of roles of real dock workers and other bits such as how Friendly’s three bodyguards are all played by former boxing champions. The cast is key to the film’s realism and Kazan smartly uses a group of non-major stars to sell it all.
Some may quibble at the “happy ending” of a film that boasted such stark realism. But then, that’s the point, that sometimes the good can win out in the end after a hard struggle, one that leaves Brando’s Terry bloodied but unbowed and his moral compass set in the right direction. It’s that struggle, of a man trying to find the decency and drive buried behind a lifetime of pain, that makes this film stand out. But it’s also a near-perfect mix of director, style, cast and writing, an event that overcomes whatever real-life influences shadow it and delivers an experience that still rocks you no matter how often you see it. Nearly sixty years after its release, Waterfront is still one of the most enthralling looks at New York life ever committed to film and, like that city, stands above the grime to show the majesty within.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
You can always count on Criterion for a brilliant picture and for this, they outdo themselves. It’s presented in three different aspect ratios (1.67:1, 1.85:1 and 1.33:1, all offered on the second disc) encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted 108-p transfers. Created in 4K resolution with color correction, the restoration makes the film shine like never before. Rather than detract from its close-noir roots, it instead makes you appreciate it more, the shadows as brilliant as anything in the daytime and key scenes like the rooftops, the waterfront fight and that famous taxi scene are sharp and clear. You can see the details of backgrounds quite well as well as the great facial expressions of the actors, not to mention the nighttime scenes clearer than ever before. As far as I can tell, no debris or scratches at all, absolutely flawless to match the film and make you want to invest in a Blu-Ray player just for this set.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
Just as flawless as the video is, English LPCM 1 and English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. for each version along with English subtitles. It allows you to enjoy the background sounds of 1950’s New York, cab horns and city talk with the crisp dialog shining through. And of course Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent score is clear as day, another layer to an already brilliant piece of cinema that the soundtrack vividly presents like never before.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
To match such a masterpiece, Criterion has packed this with every sort of extra a fan of the film could ask for, a few carried over from the 2005 DVD release but many new. First of all, we get an illustrated booklet that features an essay from filmmaker Michael Almereyda on the film; Kazan’s 1952 published defense of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee; one of the articles by Malcom Johnson that inspired the film; And a 1953 piece by Schulberg on Father John Corridan, the real-life inspiration for Father Pete.
We kick off the extras with an Audio commentary by Richard Schickel and Jeff Young. Both men have written biographies on Kazan and the track was included in the 2005 DVD release of the film. Both men share much of Kazan’s life, his work and more, with a large discussion of how the movie was the defense for Kazan’s actions with the HUAC. Despite that, their love for the director’s work is clear, noting how without Kazan, we wouldn’t have gotten the new wave of groundbreaking directors in the late 1960’s and ‘70’s that helped change the face of cinema. They note his touches from love of shadows to how he enjoyed presenting his blonde females in white and demanded to be as close as possible to action as that’s what the audience would want. From the background stories of various bit players to the real-life inspirations and the real politics behind the film, a great track.
Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones (17:34) was created for this release as the director and critic discuss the film. Scorsese has always cited Waterfront as one of his key inspirations to get into directing and the two have a good, if short, discussion of its themes and the massive impact of its style on moviegoers and those in the industry. Another sign of the respect Kazan still holds from a man who may be considered his heir apparent.
Elia Kazan: An Outsider (53:14) is a 1982 documentary directed by Annie Tresgot as Kazan talks of his life and work with French film critic Michel Ciment. At this point, Kazan had retired from filmmaking and is pretty frank discussing his life and legacy as well as the inspirations for his work. They travel from Kazan’s home to the places he shot various films like A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden along with talk on his relationships with various actors that often led to serious clashes. The highlight is the talk on Waterfront as Kazan and Ciment travel to the real New York Waterfront and Kazan is blunt talking about not just the film but also his actions naming names. “If I had to do it over, I’d think more carefully and do the opposite then think some more and do the same thing.” Some may not agree with his actions but Kazan’s pride in his work and amazing insight to the art of filmmaking still stand the test of time.
I’m Standin’ Over Here Now”: Reconsidering the Waterfront (45:00) is a brand-new documentary created for this release. It’s a talking-heads big with USC film professor Leo Braudy, Wesley University’s Lisa Dombrowski, Cineaste editor Dan Georgakas and authors Victor Navasky and David Thomson. They all share stories on Kazan’s background shaping him, such as how he always had the attitude of an immigrant being condescended to by others. His creation of an actor’s studio offered him great players and encouraged the style that made his casts stand out. Getting his start on Broadway, Kazan was different than other directors by engaging with playwrights to help shape their work. Originally, Kazan and Arthur Miller were to work on a film about a killer named “The Hook” but the two had a falling-out right around the time of Kazan’s testimony. Indeed, some were surprised he did it due his Broadway connections but Kazan went ahead for it. Schulberg is discussed with how he spent an entire year researching the real Waterfront for detail and some stories about how producer Sam Spiegel was key to bringing the film to life and pushing for Brando despite the initial casting of Frank Sinatra. They all talk of the film’s themes and groundbreaking stuff like “shooting how people really talked” and Brando being “at his best when he’s uncertain.” The shooting was in a bitter New York winter with Kazan using real people from Hoboken for the dockworkers to add authenticity. They all say that while Kazan’s actions have shadowed the film for years, newer fans don’t feel as much about it and are able to judge the film on its own terms and still be moved by it. A quite detailed look at the film and why it remains such a classic today.
We move to a series of brand-new interviews made for this set. First up is Eva Marie Saint (11:10) talking of her first movie, her past work with Kazan in his actors studio and on Broadway and how Brando helped her prepare for this while also challenging her with her performance. She laughs she never expected the Oscar and would have simply counted the film itself as an achievement as it helped launch her career. We then get a 2001 interview with Elia Kazan (12:00) by critic Richard Schickel, the director (just two years before his death) feisty as ever, talking frank of how he was never a fan of Spiegel and still defiant on his actions of the past but proud of his work with this film. Thomas Hanley (12:00) played Tommy Collins, Brando’s young friend in the film and knew the material well as his father was apparently killed by real gangsters for acting out. It’s a good talk with detail on real life in Hoboken and how right the film captured the area perfectly.
Who Is Mr. Big?: James T. Fisher on the History of On the Waterfront (25:46) has the author discussing the real-life inspirations for the film. The Irish helped build the New York steam ports because they weren’t being hired for any other vocations and soon built a power base that included Tammany Hall. Soon, mob boss Bill McCormick dominated everything, the Irish basically allowed to run the docks with no cops of interference in any way. It also touches on the struggles of Father John Corridan to clean things up and the rise of unions. Many believed the movie would do what the dockworkers couldn’t but as it happened, in the end, the unions agreed to let their bosses keep control. It may not make sense but as Fisher illustrates, it keeps to the tone of the docks where power still remains on top and people know to not rock the boat too much.
Contender: Mastering the Method (25:04) is a 2001 documentary detailing the movie’s most famous scene, Terry and Charley in the cab talking. Among those talking are Richard Schickel, James Lipton, Martin Landau, authors Patricia Bosworth and Jeff Young and Steiger himself who describes the scene with Brando as “two people in combat.” It’s funny that Spiegel was too cheap to get a real cab so they had to use a mock-up but they couldn’t get a projection screen so we had “the only cab in New York with a venetian blind at the window.” The critics speak warmly on the tones and themes, the capturing of emotions and how Brando pushed it all. An interesting bit is that Brando had to skip a scene due to a doctor’s appointment so Steiger shot it in close-up for reactions and Steiger, embarrassed by the absence, actually used it to fuel the performance of Charley desperately trying to win his brother over before he does something that puts them both in danger. A brilliant showcase of one of the most iconic scenes in film history.
Leonard Bernstein’s score (20:05) has critic John Burlingame discussing the score with good discussion of the creation of the music, how Bernstein got involved with the film, shaping the music to match the themes and why it’s the only original music the legendary composer created for a film. A good look at one of the most underrated aspects of the film’s success.
Finally, a talk on the aspect ratio of the film and the original trailer.
Rating: 10.0 out of 10.0
The 411: From start to finish, On the Waterfront shines despite its dark tones thanks to the perfect match of a briliant director and an actor at the height of his power.Brando was never better than here, a textbook in acting ability and Kazan's groundbreaking direction shapes a great story of loyalty vs doing the right thing. The extras only enhance this, showing the controversies of the real world that helped add to the film's power and its legacy as a true masterpiece that stands tall today. One of the finest releases Criterion has ever put out and matching its source to allow new film fans to see how cinema can become art.