On the Waterfront

Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg (based upon an original story by Budd Schulberg, suggested by articles by Malcolm Johnson
Stars: Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy), Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), Karl Malden (Father Barry), Lee J. Cobb (Johnny Friendly), Rod Steiger (Charley Malloy), Pat Henning (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)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: U.S.
On the Waterfront Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
On the WaterfrontIt’s the scene. The one everyone talks about. The one that crops up in every montage on ’50s American cinema or great screen performances, the one that has been played and replayed and copied and parodied and mimicked so many times that it sometimes feels in danger of losing its bite. Yet, it never does, and therein lies the power and the greatness of not just this one scene, but the film of which it is a part. The film is Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and the scene, of course, is Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy, a former boxer-turned-reluctant heavy for a corrupt New Jersey longshoremen union, riding in the back seat of a taxi with his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), the union’s financial guru. Terry is torn about whether or not he should cooperate with a federal investigation into the union’s illegal activities and, in particular, the murder of a stool pigeon in which Terry played a small, but crucial role. Charley is trying to convince him to keep his mouth shut, but Terry isn’t so sure.

The scene, however, isn’t ultimately about whether or not Terry will testify, but rather about the fraught relationship between the two brothers. With great, almost childlike sadness, Terry utters the immortal lines, “I coulda had a class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.” In a fit of emotional nakedness, Terry lays his lost dreams at his brother’s feet, reminding him that his boxing career was derailed when he took a dive in an important bout so that the waterfront boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), could make money gambling against him. “You saw some money,” Charley retorts, reminding Terry that he benefitted financially from the dive, as well, but the words ring hollow—to both of the men in the cab and to us. In that moment, and in Brando’s puffy, anguished eyes, we see a man who poignantly and tragically realizes that his life ended before it ever had a chance to begin and suddenly understands why. “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit,” Terry tells him, and it strikes us not as whining, but as pleading (the “little bit” in the dialogue is essential, in this regard). It’s a desperate man’s desperate desire to understand why his life has turned out the way it has, why he never got “his night” and therefore wound up in “palookaville.” In short, why he isn’t somebody. It is the most poignant scene in a film that is filled with them, testament to both Kazan’s abiding humanism and Brando and Steiger’s performative brilliance.

On the Waterfront, which was produced independently outside of the Hollywood studio system and revived Kazan’s career after his tumultuous decision to “name names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, was a watershed moment in cinema history, and it remains one of the greatest films of the 1950s. It was a time when American filmmakers were beginning to absorb the realist aesthetic that had been cutting through European cinema in the postwar years and use it to depict tough subject matter in an increasingly frank manner. Kazan, who had first made his mark with so-called “social problem films” in the late 1940s, including the Oscar-winning Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which dealt with anti-Semitism, and Pinky (1949), which dealt with “passing” and interracial romance, was particularly well suited to this terrain. As a founding member of the Actors Studio in New York, which used the “Method” developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, Kazan had a gift for working with actors. While he split his time between cinema and the stage, where he directed the Broadway premiers of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there was a seamlessness in the way his work relied on the power of his performers. It is no surprise, then, that he was drawn to Brando, who he directed on stage in Streetcar when he was only 23 and in whom he recognized a true genius. Kazan gave Brando—who he described as the only actor genius he had ever encountered—all the credit for his powerful work in On the Waterfront. Working with him was, in Kazan’s words, “like directing some genius animal.”

Brando’s Terry is a sad sack of a character surrounded by others who embody the kind of intensity and vibrancy that he lost years ago. This is particularly true of Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the feisty and determined sister of the man Terry helped lure to his death. Terry is immediately attracted to Edie and she to him; they recognize some sense of shared innocence in each other, even though their relationship is tragically overshadowed by Terry withholding the very knowledge that she seeks. He wants to be with her and share in her vitality, but he has to hold back because the one thing he cannot do to help her is come clean regarding his own culpability. This tension also extends to his relationship with Father Barry (Karl Malden), the local parish priest who is determined to help the exploited longshoremen get their fair share even though it means going up against the powerful union that takes advantage of them. Shining a light on the union’s tactics is crucial to undermining their control of the docks, and again Terry finds himself torn about whether to come clean or keep his mouth shut. If he speaks the truth, he will lose what little he has left; but, if he continues to withhold what he knows, he risks the potentially darker and more disturbing fate of remaining tormented by his own silence.

Of course, one cannot watch On the Waterfront without taking into account the film’s political context. Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (who also penned Kazan’s bitter media satire A Face in the Crowd three years later), both of whom had joined and then become disillusioned with the Communist Party in the 1930s, had “named names” during the HUAC investigation into the supposed communist infiltration of the movie industry. To many of his contemporaries, Kazan was a traitor, and his association with the McCarthy era and the damage done to many men’s careers as a result of his testimony stuck with him for decades, to the point that when he was given an honorary achievement Oscar in 1999, there were people in the audience who refused to applaud when he walked on stage flanked by fervent admirers Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Thus, there is a tendency to see On the Waterfront as a self-serving parable about the moral responsibility of coming clean; one could see it as Kazan and Schulberg’s silver-screen justification of their own political culpability. Yet, to see the film in only this light is to miss its greater moments and timeless qualities. Shot in gritty black-and-white by Boris Kaufman (L’Atlante, 12 Angry Men) on location in the wintry chill of Hoboken, New Jersey, On the Waterfront is first and foremost a powerful evocation of time and place, bearing with it the kind of rough verisimilitude that often escaped studio-bound Hollywood films. The brilliance of the performances by Brando, Steiger, Malden, and Saint are inextricably linked to the film’s physicality and sense of location; they feel like characters who just stepped off a dock or out of the darkness of a saloon, rather than actors playing their roles. The film’s indelible and permanent political subtext remains, but is overshadowed by the larger humanist concerns, which rightly recognize the thin line between right and wrong and that the ability to choose is what makes us human, even as the consequences of those choices might threaten that very humanity. While some may see Terry as Kazan’s on-screen surrogate Christ figure, taking a beating and still standing up for what he sees as right, he is ultimately a tragic figure of lost opportunity grabbing for the last bit of good he might be able to accomplish in a brutal world—his poignant last chance to be somebody.

On the Waterfront Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
On the Waterfront is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1 / 1.85:1 / 1.33:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
  • Video conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones
  • Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982) documentary
  • Contender: Mastering the Method (2001) documentary
  • Documentary on the making of the film
  • Video interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001
  • Video interview with actor Eva Marie Saint
  • Video interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley
  • Video interview with author James T. Fisher
  • Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score
  • Visual essay on the aspect ratio
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Kazan’s 1952 defense of his House Un-American Activities Committee testimony, one of the 1948 Malcolm Johnson articles that inspired the film, and a 1953 piece by screenwriter Budd Schulberg
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 19, 2013

    Criterion’s new 4K high-definition transfer of On the Waterfront is a real beauty and a welcome replacement for Sony’s 2001 DVD. The new transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored, leaving it looking virtually brand new. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s poetic-realist imagery hasn’t looked better since the film debuted in 1954. Blacks are dark and solid, detail is outstanding, and the image retains a strong interplay of grain that retains a distinctly filmlike presentation. Because On the Waterfront was produced during the transitional era when Hollywood studios were shifting from the decades-old Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 to the new matted widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Criterion has taken the unprecedented step of including the film with three different aspect ratio viewing options: “open matte” 1.33:1, which will be familiar to those who have only seen the film on home video; the wider 1.85:1, which is the aspect ratio in which the film premiered in 1954 and played theatrically; and the European 1.66:1 ratio, which was more familiar to cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Criterion has chosen the 1.66:1 ratio as the default viewing mode because, as is made clear in a detailed visual essay on the disc, this is the ratio in which the film looks most natural, eliminating the excess headroom in the 1.33:1 composition and the somewhat cramped look of the 1.85:1 composition. It is important to note, however, that none of these aspect rations is the correct one. Kaufman shot the film so that it could be presented in any one of them, and it is really up to the viewer which composition he or she prefers (for the record, I agree with Criterion that the 1.66:1 aspect ratio looks best).

    The disc also offers two different options for the soundtrack: the original monaural mix and an alternate DTS-HD 5.1-channel surround mix. The monaural track was mastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic tracks, while the 5.1 mix was created from both the magnetic tracks and the original stereo music recordings. Not surprisingly, it is Leonard Bernstein’s musical score that benefits the most from the remix, as it is given additional spaciousness in the surround channels and across the front soundstage. The mix also spaces out some of the environmental sounds and adds some panning and directionality, but it is mostly subtle work that maintains the integrity of the track and doesn’t try to force anything.

    All I can say is “Wow.” Criterion has definitely invested time and energy in their Blu-Ray edition of On the Waterfront, creating one of the most in-depth and supplement-laden editions of recent memory. The disc maintains the most important supplements from Sony’s 2001 disc—a video interview with director Elia Kazan and Contender: Mastering the Method, a short documentary about the film’s most famous scene that includes interviews with Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton, author Patricia Bosworth, and actors Martin Landau and Rod Steiger, among others—while also adding a host of new material. First up is an excellent and deeply informative audio commentary by Richard Schickel, author of biographies on both Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, and Jeff Young, author of Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films (both of them also appear in the Contender documentary). Together, these two men have forgotten more about Kazan and On the Waterfront than most of us will ever know, so there is much to be learned here. There is also a new video conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones, with most of the emphasis being on Scorsese’s experience first seeing the film and recognizing in it the realities he saw everyday growing up in New York. There are also three additional new video interviews with actress Eva Marie Saint, longshoreman Thomas Hanley (who played a small role in the film), and author James T. Fisher, who talks about the real-life people and places that inspired the film. Two new visual essays elucidate Leonard Bernstein’s evocative musical score and the film’s multiple aspect ratios dilemma, while I’m Standin’ Over Here Now, a new documentary on the making of the film, features interviews with film scholars Leo Braudy, David Thomson, and Lisa Dombrowski; Cineaste editor Dan Georgakas; and historian Victor Navasky. From the archives we get Elia Kazan: Outsider, an hour-long documentary from 1982 that features extensive interviews with the director, some of which were conducted on the docks in Hoboken where much of the film was shot. The insert booklet is a lengthy but crucial read, as it includes an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Kazan’s 1952 defense of his House Un-American Activities Committee testimony originally published in The New York Times, one of the 1948 Malcolm Johnson articles that inspired the film, and a 1953 piece by screenwriter Budd Schulberg about Father John Corridan, who was the basis for Karl Malden’s character in the film.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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