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On the Waterfront: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

On the Waterfront (1954) movie poster On the Waterfront

Theatrical Release: July 28, 1954 / Running Time: 108 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Elia Kazan / Writers: Budd Schulberg (screenplay & original story); Malcolm Johnson (suggested articles)

Cast: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Pete Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly/Michael J. Skelly), Rod Steiger (Charley Malloy), Pat Henning (Timothy J. "Kayo" Dugan), Leif Erickson (Glover), James Westerfield (Big Mac), Tony Galento (Truck), Tami Mauriello (Tillio), John F. Hamilton ("Pop" Doyle), John Heldabrand (Mott), Rudy Bond (Moose), Don Blackman (Luke), Arthur Keegan (Jimmy), Abe Simon (Barney), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle); Uncredited: Pat Hingle (Jocko the Bartender), Martin Balsam (Gillette), Fred Gwynne (Slim)

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While not many people may declare On the Waterfront the greatest film ever made, it's almost never forgotten when organizations make a list. The American Film Institute placed it eighth on its 1998 countdown of the 100 greatest American movies. The 2007 recount dropped it to 20th. Internet Movie Database users, who shows less reverence to classics and are remarkably quick to embrace certain new releases, currently rank it 115th among narrative films.
These contemporary commendations paint On the Waterfront as one of the better and more enduring winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture. 1954 also gave us Rear Window, arguably Alfred Hitchcock's greatest work, and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai debuted in Japan (but wouldn't be eligible for Oscars until 1956's crop). Neither of those nor anything else posed an Oscar threat to Waterfront, a drama that enlisted a number of the most important people in American film at the time.

Already being heralded as the standout talent of his generation, 29-year-old Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a New York City longshoreman who's still remembered for the promise he showed years ago as a prize fighter. Terry's older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is a lawyer and advisor to Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the feared, wealthy, powerful union boss calling all the shots down at the docks. While others are regularly turned away at the daily hiring, Terry's connection to the top lands him a cushy job in the loft, getting paid to sit around and do no work. That privilege comes with strings attached, though, as Terry finds out when he is asked to lure a friend to his death.

While the outcome from that confrontation came as a genuine surprise to him, Terry's unwitting participation still eats at his conscience. It doesn't go away at all when the deceased's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) goes looking for answers regarding her brother's curious death. Adding a voice of reason and a call to action is Father Pete Barry (Karl Malden), a priest who is critical of the waterfront labor procedures, sympathetic with those suffering by them, and fed up with the accepted mentality to remain "D and D" (deaf and dumb) when cops start asking questions.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) go for a chilly park walk in "On the Waterfront."

When production began in November 1953, Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director of 1947 Best Picture Gentleman's Agreement and more recently nominated for A Streetcar Named Desire, was a year and a half removed from the actions that in many ways have overshadowed his achievements behind the camera. As you probably know, Kazan controversially gave the names of his associates from his brief stint in the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). While those individuals were instantly professionally blacklisted, Kazan's friendly testimony left a stain on his reputation still present nearly 50 years later, when he received an honorary lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Oscars to mixed reactions.

Some have chosen to read into the close proximity between Kazan's undisputed crowning cinematic achievement and the voluntary actions that many colleagues, even at the height of the Cold War, considered regrettable. But Kazan didn't write Waterfront (or most of his films, for that matter); novelist and low-level television writer Budd Schulberg did. You can find parallels between Kazan and his protagonist Terry Malloy, who takes an unpopular stand against corruption. However, this is no allegory or confessional; Schulberg's screenplay was based on his own personal research of New York's docks, where racketeering was rumored to run rampant yet not easily exposed.

You needn't look for Kazan's politics and personal convictions here; this is a film, not an outlet for Kazan to either stand by his act or exorcise demons. Those who have watched movies from all eras are sure to notice that the earliest ones did not concern themselves much with realism. The medium took grand strides from the days of the broad silent farces to the arrival of "New Hollywood" in the late 1960s. Crime films from the 1930s do not seem to take their subject matter all that seriously or to ponder the burdens of immorality and conflicting loyalties. Bad guys were bad and good guys were code, as required by the production code. Film noir moved us away from that clear-cut storytelling and On the Waterfront brings us even closer to modern films in its content and sensibilities.

Father Pete Barry (Karl Malden) doesn't let falling alcohol or scowls deter his worksite preaching in the wake of a fatal "accident." Union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) doesn't look so friendly as he deals with an issue that concerns him.

It isn't just the black and white photography or getting all the credits up front that establishes On the Waterfront as an old production. Though more sophisticated than the 1930s works considered the birthplace of the gangster film, Waterfront is not void of artifice even as it seems determined to present its dark content unflinchingly.
Fortunately, Brando's influential methods and an outstanding performance by Karl Malden help to ground the film, as a larger than life villain and convenient traditional romance threaten to pull the film away from the working class reality it seeks.

AFI has recognized virtually every facet of On the Waterfront, including it among inspirational movies, film scores, heroes and villains, and quotes. You can't really object to any of those acknowledgements, because the film does work exceptionally well in all these ways. Even something that doesn't quite sizzle, like Terry and Edie's romance, is at least not shallowness born out of honoring a classic convention. The two connect out of the damage and fragility they have in common. Their moral compasses are similar, but shaped by their different experiences and worldviews. Neither has the power to make the change they seek and, though that is inevitable, the film gratefully manages to avoid unrealistic tidiness.

Waterfront won eight Academy Awards, including most major ones, out of its twelve nominations. Three of its four losses came in the Best Supporting Actor category, where Cobb, Malden, and Steiger all failed to join Brando and supporting actress Saint in the winners' circle, falling to The Barefoot Contessa's Edmond O'Brien. (Malden had won Supporting Actor just a few years earlier for Kazan's Streetcar.)

On Tuesday, On the Waterfront becomes one of the best-known and most beloved films admitted into the Criterion Collection, as well as one of the line's few Best Picture Oscar winners. It claims spine number 647 in a three-disc DVD and the two-disc Blu-ray reviewed here.

On the Waterfront: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.66:1 Widescreen, 1.85:1 Widescreen, and 1.33:1 Open Matte
1.0 LPCM Mono (English), 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50s)
Suggested Retail Price: $49.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 3-Disc DVD ($39.95 SRP), Sony Special Edition DVD ($19.99 SRP; October 23, 2001), and on Amazon Instant Video


As a 1954 movie, On the Waterfront was made right when the industry was transitioning from the long-standard Academy Ratio to widescreen formats, devised and touted in response to television's widespread popularity. Sony's 2001 DVD presented the film exclusively in 1.33:1. Criterion does two better by offering the film in 1.66:1 widescreen on Disc 1, and both a matted 1.85:1 and an open matte 1.33:1 "full-screen" on Disc 2. The booklet and a bonus feature explain the different framings and why the 1.66:1 European standard, a compromise between theatrical exhibitions and the television/home video dimensions, is chosen as the default presentation.

The three aspect ratio options are the most interesting thing about this release, because as usual when it comes to quality, Criterion's restoration efforts are excellent. Picture quality remains pretty stellar throughout. A few shots have less than ideal sharpness and focus. Others feature grain that can be quite heavy at times. Neither issue is troubling or prevalent enough to see the 1080p transfer as anything but faithful and magnificent. Sound is offered in a default 1.0 LPCM Mono track and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. I listened to the latter and found it difficult to identify it as a 5.1-channel mix, but that's good because more drastic remixing would betray the original design.

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese reflects on a film that influenced him in this new interview. The 1982 documentary "Elia Kazan: An Outsider" interviews the director at home and on the waterfront.


Disc 1's numerous extras begin with an audio commentary recorded by Kazan biographers Richard Schickel and Jeff Young for Sony's 2001 DVD. Their comfortable chat has little screen-specificity, as they instead offer a knowledgeable general assessment of the movie and of its makers' lives and careers.
It's informative, but feels unofficial based on its casual tone and their loose connection to the film.

On the video side, where everything is presented in HD regardless of source limitations, we start with "Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones" (17:34), a brand new conversation between the legendary director and a film critic that celebrates On the Waterfront as part of cinema history and Scorsese's upbringing.

The excellent 1982 documentary "Elia Kazan: An Outsider" (53:14) spends time with the director at his Connecticut home, The Actors' Studio in New York, and the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey (where Waterfront was shot). Kazan reflects on his life, his films, the evolution of acting craft, his experiences with the Communist Party, his family, his lack of religion, and his future plans. His comments are complemented by excerpts of his work and a few words from Robert De Niro (who starred in Kazan's The Last Tycoon). This is the set's standout inclusion.

Columbia University professor Victor Navasky is among those reflecting upon the film in "I'm Standin' Over Here Now." Eva Marie Saint reflects on her Oscar-winning film debut in this new 2012 interview. Elia Kazan's 2001 interview for Sony's DVD is preserved here.

The new documentary "I'm Standin' Over Here Now" (45:00) interviews a number of critics, professors, and authors who count themselves among the film's fans. They discuss the movie, Kazan, and whether the former reflects the latter's life. It's a thorough retrospective and can be thought of as a tauter (but hardly more visual) alternative to a new commentary track.

Lone surviving lead cast member Eva Marie Saint gives a good new interview (11:10), recorded last September. The Oscar-winning octogenarian recalls making her film debut, after ten years of other acting, across from Brando and Kazan.

A 2001 interview of Elia Kazan (12:00) is recycled from Sony's DVD of the film. Two years before his death, the director offers warm memories of his best-regarded film, while steering clear of the controversy that has largely defined his career and reputation.

Thomas Hanley, who played Terry's young pigeon coop pal Tommy Collins, is all grown up today. An archival photo complements James T. Fisher's history of the waterfront. Rod Steiger recalls the filming conditions of his famous car ride exchange with Marlon Brando in the 2001 featurette "Contender: Mastering the Method."

Another new interview is conducted with Thomas Hanley (12:00), who portrayed Tommy Collins, Terry's young rooftop friend. He discusses his unlikely Hollywood experience and the longshoreman's life he led for over fifty years after the film opened.

"Who is Mr. Big?: James T. Fisher on the History of the Waterfront" (25:46) has author Fisher speak about New York's mercantile empire before, during, and after the time of the movie's depictions. It covers relevant ground, though not every viewer will care.

Also taken from Sony's DVD, "Contender: Mastering the Method" (25:04) considers the film's most famous and quoted scene as a product of Method acting. Rod Steiger's reflections are complimented by remarks by "Inside the Actor's Studio" host James Lipton, commentators/biographers Schickel and Young, Brando biographer Patricia Bosworth, and actor Martin Landau, who all weigh in on the subject matter and performances.

This photo of Leonard Bernstein livens up Jon Burlingame's extended essay on the composer's only original film score. "On the Aspect Ratio" illustrates how the film, and more specifically Pop Doyle (John F. Hamilton), looks in three different framings: 1.33:1, 1.66:1, and 1.85:1.

"Leonard Bernstein's Score" (20:05) is a video essay in critic Jon Burlingame discusses at length the famous composer's only original film score, singling out and ruminating upon specific cues and themes. You don't have to be a musicologist to appreciate this, but it probably helps.

The visual essay "On the Aspect Ratio" (5:11) takes us through the different versions of On the Waterfront as part of a history of cinema's changing ratios.
It answers any questions you might have pertaining this "shoot and protect" production with valuable documents, illustrations and comparisons. It's a great piece, though it runs the risk of dissuading non-cinephiles from widescreen.

The disc closes with On the Waterfront's original widescreen theatrical trailer (2:42), which raises expectations with its promising scrolls.

Disc 2 only holds the aforementioned 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 alternate presentations of the film, each provided with the same 1.0 LPCM and 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound options, English subtitles, and sterling quality. As nice as it is to get all viable framings of the film, note that these alternate presentations do add $10 to the $49.95 SRP, based on Criterion's steep pricing standards.

Not everything from Sony's Special Edition DVD is preserved here. Foreign dubs and subtitles, not Criterion's thing, are dropped, as is a video photo gallery, filmographies, and trailers for other Sony properties. In other words, nothing you'll really miss.

The "On the Waterfront" theatrical trailer likens the film to 1944's "Going My Way", but with brass knuckles. Animated pigeons fly on the grayscale menus of Discs 1 and 2.


The scored menus give us simple, elegant animated renderings of the pigeons, having them fly behind their rooftop coop on Disc 1 and above the neighborhood skyline on Disc 2. As always, Criterion equips each disc with flawless resuming capabilities and the ability to place bookmarks on the film (in all three presentations, to boot).

Criterion breaks with tradition to treat On the Waterfront to a Digipak with slipcover. The obligatory booklet is found loose within the Digipak. At 48 pages, it is one of Criterion's thicker booklets and it is nicely illustrated in a way that matches the creative blue-gray cover art. The booklet opens with "Everybody Part of Everybody Else",
a well-researched essay by documentarian Michael Almereyda (whose narrative directing credits include the Ethan Hawke Hamlet) that biographizes Kazan, celebrates the contributions of his collaborators, and calls attention to a few choice moments in the film.

Next comes Elia Kazan's statement (later attributed to his wife), placed as a paid advertisement in April 12, 1952 issue of the New York Times in defense of his naming of American Communist names as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of the Cold War. Next comes some historical context for the film's subject matter in a 1948 New York Sun article in which reports of longshoremen racketeering are flatly (yet dubiously) denied by union president Joe Ryan, one of the inspirations for Lee J. Cobb's character. It reads like an interview of Dick Tracy's Big Boy Caprice.

Finally, "Waterfront Priest" from a 1953 issue of Commonweal magazine is an article that Budd Schulberg wrote while working on the Waterfront screenplay. It profiles Jesuit priest Father John Corridan, the inspiration for Karl Malden's character in the film, a fascinating character looking out for the honest longshoreman. Amidst Criterion's ordinary, useful information (chapters list, cast list, credits and acknowledgements), the booklet's section on the transfer explains the inclusion of the film in all three of its aspect ratios.

In the film's most quoted scene, brothers Charley (Rod Steiger) and Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) reflect on past failings and future perils.


A classic film makes a lavish Blu-ray debut in the highly satisfying manner you expect from a Criterion release of On the Waterfront. The film holds up well and is easy to appreciate here, given a sterling restoration (in all three of its aspect ratios!) and an exhaustive collection of substantial bonus features. The year may still be young, but this is definitely its best Blu-ray thus far.

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Related Reviews:
Marlon Brando: The Godfather Apocalypse Now | Eva Marie Saint: North by Northwest | Rod Steiger: Doctor Zhivago
Karl Malden: Gypsy Pollyanna The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin | Directed by Elia Kazan: America America
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Reviewed February 16, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1954 Columbia Pictures and 2013 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.