On the Waterfront
Marlon Brando gives the performance of his career as the tough prizefighter-turned-longshoreman Terry Malloy in this masterpiece of urban poetry. A raggedly emotional tale of individual failure and social corruption, On the Waterfront follows Terry’s deepening moral crisis as he must decide whether to remain loyal to the mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and Johnny’s right-hand man, Terry’s brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), as the authorities close in on them. Driven by the vivid, naturalistic direction of Elia Kazan and savory, streetwise dialogue by Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront was an instant sensation, winning eight Oscars®, including for best picture, director, actor, supporting actress (Eva Marie Saint), and screenplay.
Criterion presents Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront in multiple aspect ratios over two dual-layer Blu-ray discs. The first disc presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 while the second disc presents the film in its theatrical aspect ratios of 1.85:1 (for theaters that had widescreen capabilities) and 1.33:1 (for the theaters that didn’t.) All three versions of the film, which look to be all sourced from the same 4K master and framed appropriately, are presented in 1080p/24hz.
Since it appears all three presentations have been sourced from the same master (with a few minor variations, such as contrast) they are all generally the same in terms of quality. Source wise they’re all close to flawless, only presenting a few minor knicks and marks. Film grain has been left in place and it is rendered nicely across all three, though it’s actually more noticeable in the widescreen versions of the film, which I assume is because the original 1.33:1 image is more-or-less being blown up. The widescreen/1.85:1 presentation can present a bit of compression noise in the rendering of the grain in places but otherwise I couldn’t find much to fault the digital transfers on. They all cleanly render the image, don’t appear to present any edge enhancement, deliver solid black levels, clean and distinct gray levels, and superb contrast. The images across all three are crisp and sharp, never going soft. Crushing is also never an issue and details come through clearly in many of the film’s darker sequences.
As to which version should be viewed it will ultimately come down to personal preference. The film was made with multiple aspect ratios in mind since it was coming out when widescreen was making its first appearance. Since there were still theaters that did not have the capability to play widescreen films Columbia would release the film (and others at the time) in both the ratios of 1.85:1 and 1.33:1. As to which one was actually preferred by the film’s director or cinematographer is unclear but it’s known that scenes were shot with the multiple aspect ratios in mind.
Criterion includes a feature that goes over the ratios and they do point out the advantages, like how the full frame version can give a better idea of the surroundings in exterior scenes but the widescreen version offers tighter framing in the more intimate moments. But then there are disadvantages: the full frame version can have too much head room or look odd in the bottom portion of the screen and the widescreen version can cut off too much information in a few scenes. The 1.66:1 version (which many figure cinematographer Boris Kaufman also had in mind while shooting and it’s a ratio he has used in other films) is actually a really good compromise between the two, allowing for the tighter framing but also not cutting off too much information. For me I may stick with the 1.66:1 version.
But the real advantage here is that one doesn’t really have to choose a version based on which one has the better transfer as all three look rather brilliant. Amazing job overall.
All three presentations of the film also appear to come with the same linear PCM 1.0 mono and DTS-HD 5.1 surround tracks. The original mono track is more than likely the one most will want to go with and it’s certainly a fine presentation. It manages to deliver a fairly dynamic presentation, with great range in dialogue and music, both of which are clear. Music also comes off fairly clean without any distortion.
The 5.1 track primarily remixes Leonard Bernstein’s to be spread out between the five speakers and to take advantage of the lower channel for bass. The mix is nice and fills out the environment, and it doesn’t feel detached or out of place from the rest of the film. The rest of the track, dialogue and sound effects, stick primarily to the center channel and this aspect of the track does sound pretty similar to the mono track. There are a few instances where effects manage to spread to the other speakers, like the ship horn that blows when Terry makes a confession to another character, but this is a rare occurrence.
Both sound fine, and the 5.1 track at least doesn’t sound too out of place or drown anything else out, but I preferred the mono track in the end.
This is a fully loaded edition and the supplements are of the quantity and quality one would expect from Criterion, but we admittedly haven’t seen for a long while. All supplements are found on the first disc.
Some do come from Sony’s previous 2001 DVD edition starting with an audio commentary by Richard Schickel and Jeff Young. It’s a decent enough track with the two talking about the various aspects of the film, from its presentation of its characters and people, to the long history of the production, and to the performances, specifically Brando’s and the impact he had. Unfortunately the two constantly get caught up on the House of Un-American Activities Committee and Kazan’s testimony before them, where he “named names.” Of course one expects this subject to come up: whether Kazan intended it or not the film, made immediately afterwards, has a storyline that could be seen as a comment or defense of that incident, but the subject keeps coming up and the track can lose its focus as the two get caught up in talking about the morality of what Kazan did. In all it’s not a terrible track, but some comments in it contradict other statements found in the other supplements (like the glove scene,) and most of the information is repeated elsewhere, so listening to it is not all that necessary.
Following this is a new 17-minute conversation between Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones. Jones doesn’t have much of a purpose other than to ask questions of Scorsese and nod in agreement with the director every once in a while. Scorsese talks about the impact On the Waterfront had on him when he first saw it and how heavy an influence it was in his directing career, particularly the realism found within it. He also talks about other films of the period along with Brando and “method acting”, which leads to Scorsese to talk about John Garfield to an extent. Though I’m really not sure why Jones is there Scorsese offers a lot and makes the supplement a rather fascinating inclusion.
Elia Kazan: An Outisder is a 53-minute documentary on the director made in 1983. It’s basically a conversation with Kazan and his career, skimping over early theater work and then the development of The Actors Studio and “The Method” which is where Robert De Niro shows up for a bit to talk about Kazan. Kazan then revisits the pier where On the Waterfront was shot and he talks about the film. Here he also talks about his testimony in front of HUAC and explains why he did what he did. From here Kazan then talks about casting, his love of writing, James Dean, theater, and then his own family. It’s surprisingly brisk and anyone interested in the director and his career will find this a worthwhile feature to go through.
”I’m Standin’ Over Here Now” is a new 45-minute documentary on the film’s production put together by Criterion. It features interviews with authors Leo Brandy, Victor Navasky, and Lisa Dombrowski, Cineaste editor Dan Georgankas, and film scholar David Thomson. The piece basically summarizes all previous features, with the participants going over Kazan’s history, his testimony before HUAC, and then cover the production history of On the Waterfront. They go over the development of the script, getting the funds for the film, casting (as mentioned elsewhere Frank Sinatra was originally considered for the role of Terry Malloy) and the film’s release. The participants also talk about many aspects of the film itself, looking at all of the performances, focus on how certain scenes play, and then also talk about whether the film was a response to the reaction that occurred after Kazan testified. Typical talking-heads documentary but it covers most of the material found in the commentary and I actually preferred it to that feature.
Criterion has also managed to get a new interview with Eva Marie Saint, who made her movie debut with On the Waterfront. The actress talks about getting the role and what it was like working with Brando and Kazan. She talks about the “glove scene” mentioned in just about every other feature in this set, but contradicts most saying the scene was not born on the spot but was rather born after a mistake during rehearsal. She also recalls some of the dangers, particularly the alley scene involving the truck, which came close to hitting her and Brando. She recalls the Oscars (she mentally noted all of the people who didn’t clap when Kazan won) and then talks about how different it was to work with Alfred Hitchcock afterwards. It’s an absolutely wonderful interview that’s only fault is that it’s a short 11-minutes.
Also taken from the original Sony DVD is a 2001 interview with Elia Kazan. The 12-minute interview basically sums up most everything we’ve seen and heard before in previous features about the film’s production, but Kazan goes into great detail about the “contender” scene in the cab. For this aspect the feature is another worthwhile addition.
A rather thoughtful inclusion, and something only Criterion would do, is a 12-minute interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley, who also played the kid Tommy Collins in the film. Hanley recalls how he came to get the role and talks fondly of Brando, who he considered a regular guy. The most interesting aspect of the interview turns out to be his firsthand accounts of what it was like to work on the waterfront and the gang activity that occurred there. He talks about the code of silence and the crimes that occurred. He admits he followed many of the same codes mentioned in the film but in later years stopped adhering to it. He amusingly closes talking about how he’s glad that most of the gangsters from that time are in jail and he’s now waiting for the latest batch to also go to jail. A rather fascinating interview and yet another great addition.
Who is Mr. Big? is a 25-minute interview with author James T. Fisher who talks about the real waterfront that influenced the film and the various people the characters in the film are based on. Ultimately it offers a lot of historical information that proves absolutely fascinating but Fisher, somewhat humourously, seems to forget to catch his breath while talking.
Contender: Mastering the Method is a 25-minute feature from the previous Sony DVD and features Richard Schickel, James Lipton, Patricia Bosworth, Jeff Young, and actors Rod Steiger and Martin Landau talking about the famous scene between Brando and Steiger in the cab. Kazan famously just let the scene play out, doing very little “directing” and both Steiger and Brando took the scene in a completely different direction than other people figured it would go, with it playing more like a love scene than a scene of anger. Here the participants break down the scene in great detail pointing out every little nuance, with a good chunk of it devoted to Brando’s gesture in moving a gun away. Steiger also recalls firsthand how the scene developed and a nervousness that built in him as he played out the scene with Brando. A surprisingly decent examination of the film’s most famous scene.
Criterion then includes a new visual essay about Leonard Bernstein and his score for the film. The 20-minute piece goes over how the composer came to be involved with the production (who agreed to do it as long as he could also do a concert suite based off of it) and then goes over the various cues and the scenes they play over. It’s surprisingly in-depth and nicely breaks down many of the score’s moments.
Criterion then goes over the various aspect ratios the film has been shown in. The interesting 5-minute feature gives a brief history of the widescreen format and why Columbia chose to show the film (and others) theatrically in various ratios. It then compares many sequences between the three provided here (1.33:1, 1.66:1, and 1.85:1) and points out the advantages and disadvantages.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Disc two presents the 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 versions of the film. Each version also comes with the choice of a PCM 1.0 mono track, or the remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track. The commentary is not included and no other features appear on the disc.
The set then concludes with a 45-page booklet featuring an essay by Michael Almereyda followed by a reprint of Elia Kazan’s statement on why he testified and “named names.” It also includes a reprint of the 1948 news article written by Malcolm Johnson about the corruption on the docks, which ultimately influenced the film, and then a reprint of the 1953 article by Budd Shulberg about Father John Corridan, who was the basis for the character of Father Pete Barry (Karl Malden) in the film. Overall a fantastic booklet, the article by Johnson proving to be the most intriguing of the bunch.
In all, despite some repetition in places, I think Criterion has nicely rounded out the supplements. It gives a good dose of contextualization, some wonderful analysis and insights, and a great look at the production, Brando, and Kazan. Probably the best set Criterion has put together in a while.
Criterion has put together an impressive and outstanding edition, with some great supplementary material and a fantastic presentation, no matter which aspect ratio you watch the film in.