DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

On The Waterfront, Blu-ray (1954/2013)

A gorgeous reissue of a super-classic of American filmmaking, with ultimate performances from all involved.

Published on February 17, 2013

On The Waterfront, Blu-ray (1954/2013)

Cast: Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden
Director: Elia Kazan
Writer: Budd Schulberg
Studio: Columbia/ The Criterion Collection 647 [2/19/13] (2 discs)
Video: 1.66:1 for 16:9 B&W 1080p HD (or choice of 1.33:1 or 1.85:1)
Audio: Original English mono PCM; DTS-HD MA 5.1 alternate
Subtitles: English
Extras: Commentary track with authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, Conversation between filmmaker Martin scorsese and critic Kent Jones, “Outsider” – 1982 one hour documentary on Kazan, New documentary on the making of the film, New interview with Eva Marie Saint, 2001 interview with Elia Kazan, “Contender” – 2001 documentary on the film’s most famous scene, New interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley (an actor in the film), New interview with author James T. Fisher about the real-life people and places behind the film, Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score, Theatrical trailer, Illustrated printed booklet with essay by critic Michael Almereyda and reprints of Kazan’s 1952 NY Times ad defending his testimony before the HUAC, one of 1948 NY Sun articles by Malcolm Johnson on which the film was based, a 1953 Commonweal piece by Budd Schulberg
Length: 108 minutes
Rating: *****

Some of lines from the film are such common knowledge now that many think they have viewed the film when they haven’t. It is surely one of the super-classics of American filmmaking, and won eight Oscars. There was a terrible reissue on a Columbia DVD, and as usual Criterion Collection spared nothing in remastering a gorgeous 4K digital transfer of the original materials and cleaning up the uncompressed mono soundtrack. The surround option doesn’t do much, as expected. The film simply wouldn’t have worked in color; the black and white is lovely, with a very wide grey scale and detail in the shadows, although with a bit of grain, which seems to add grit to the whole thing artistically. The 1.66 aspect ratio, like many European films, doesn’t quite fill the entire 16:9 screen; the 1.85:1 does, and the 1.33 is of course a standard 4:3 format with large borders on the sides.  Unusual, to have the choice of all three—probably why there are two Blu-ray discs.

The film was shot on location around the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, in the mid-‘50s, telling the tale of tough prizefighter-turned-longshoreman Terry Malloy (Brando), who is working with mobsters who have taken over his union and sold it out to the bosses. The gangsters include his older brother Charley (Steiger). He falls in love with the innocent sister of a fellow longshoreman who is thrown off a building by the mobsters for threatening to talk to the authorities about the corruption at the docks. Karl Malden is terrific (as are all the actors) as an idealistic priest who fights to improve conditions on the docks. Cobb is the leader of the mob, Johnny Friendly. Terry is eventually blackballed and savagely beaten for informing in court against the mobsters.

Kazan, known for his testimony (“naming of names”) to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee two years earlier, was active in the famous Actor’s Workshop, and was an actors’ director. He gets amazing performances out of everyone on the screen. At the time it was said that the film was a sort of excuse or defense of Kazan naming his fellow Communist Party members in the film industry, but now that has been mostly forgotten. There are hours of extras on Kazan and other aspects of the film that round out many details of his life and the creation of the film.  This is a treasure of American filmmaking.

—John Sunier




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