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ON THE WATERFRONT
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint
Director: Elia Kazan
Audio: PCM Mono, DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2013

I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am.”

Film ****

On the Waterfront is a classic piece of American cinema, and many things to many fans. For me, it is simply one of the best acted films ever shown on a screen.

It's not just the talent in the cast, which is impressive, but how they channel their characters and deliver the memorable dialogue in a story about union corruption and having the courage to do the right thing even if it means the whole world turns against you.

This theme was no small matter to director Elia Kazan, who was at the time under hot water for cooperating with a House of Representatives investigation into Communism in Hollywood. Kazan believed he was doing the right thing, but though his career continued, Hollywood never forgave him for exposing the left-wing drive of their industry. If you don't believe that, just watch how many stars sat with their arms folded and didn't acknowledge him when receiving an honorary Oscar near the end of his life.

On the Waterfront is an explosive piece of drama that centered on a group of longshoremen in the northeast struggling day to day to get by for themselves and their families while their union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb) and his cohorts get fat off their dues, and keeps them all in fear, either by withholding work from them, or, when that wasn't enough, violence and murder.

The film opens with Terry Malloy (Brando, in an Oscar-winning performance) setting up a fellow union man who has designs on breaking the silence and letting the law know what Friendly is doing. Terry believes they're just going to lean on him a little, but they do more than that...they throw him off a building to his death.

This brings the town's new priest Father Barry (Malden) and the dead man's sister Edie (Saint, another Oscar winner) into the picture. They can't believe something so terrible could happen in front of everyone, and yet no one says a word.

Terry was once a prize fighter, but he more or less lost his chance at a promising career by taking dives for Johnny and his team, which even includes Terry's own brother Charley (Stieger), who is Johnny's right hand man. He had no intention of being privy to a murder, but the thankful boss rewards him with a cushy job.

In the meantime, he begins to have designs on Edie, and there is even a hint of a promising relationship. But Edie doesn't quite trust that Terry doesn't want to speak up about her brother, nor is she aware that Terry played a part in his death.

Father Barry might have been the kind of spiritual leader content to stay safe in his pulpit, but once his eyes are open, he realizes his calling includes helping those in his parish, even if it means taking to the dangerous streets and trying to implore the scared masses to do the right thing. It won't be an easy task, especially since the one man he DOES convince to speak up is the next one to die.

When Terry gets a subpoena, it opens a door for him. His conscience makes him want to go forward and tell all he knows, not only to the authorities, but to Father Barry and Edie as well. But Johnny has no intention of letting that happen. However, he is willing to wait on behalf of Charley, who wants one last chance to talk to his brother and bring him back into the fold.

The resulting scene is one of the most memorable and discussed stretches of cinema in film history, as well as a scene that helped bring national attention to the burgeoning “method” style of acting. It is simple: Charley and Terry discuss the matters at hand in the back of a cab, but Terry doesn't know the cab is on its way to a rendezvous with Johnny and certain death, and that the length of the cab ride is all the time Charley has to convince him not to testify and prevent that from happening.

I admit, I've had a love-hate relationship with Marlon Brando over the years. For every film performance that left me shaking my head because I felt it collapsed under the weight of his ego, there are others that remind me why so many consider him a national treasure and America's finest screen actor. This movie, and this scene in particular, are firm reminders of the latter for me. Brando's rendition as Terry is truly a high point in movie acting, as not only his face but his whole physical presence conveys the conflict within him. He is indeed someone we can all relate to...we've all had a crisis of conscience at one time or another.

Even through the powerhouse perfection of the acting, writing and directing, it was not lost on audiences in the 1950s why Kazan so sympathized with Terry, a character who spoke out for what he felt was right and was outcast as a result. In fact, Terry's testimony consisted of little more than answering “yeah” to a few questions, but it was enough to make him a target. The film's final triumph, however, is not Terry making this decision, but what he decides to do next. He has essentially two choices: he can wither away and wait for the inevitable, or he can make his stand so strong that it forces the issue.

I would wager movie audiences had never seen such a gritty picture of working class America before. Sure, there were gangster movies and film noir, but this is a movie that really captured the toughness, dirt, sweat and danger in a very real way. It's easy to see why Kazan, and this film in particular, was such an influence on the likes of Martin Scorsese.

Simply put, On the Waterfront is a genuine, bona fide classic. In an age where that word gets bandied about way too liberally, for this kind of movie, it's actually an understatement.

Video ****

Criterion scores again by bringing a black and white piece of history into full high definition glory with this terrific Blu-ray release. The print is clean and clear, and the detail and contrast levels are quite amazing throughout. A couple of darker scenes show a touch of grain, but that's fairly typical when the lighting is low. This is definitely the way the film should look!

Audio ***1/2

Purists may prefer the traditional uncompressed mono, but for my take, I rather enjoyed the new DTS HD 5.1 track. Criterion doesn't overdo turning a mono track into a multi-channel one; in fact, the biggest beneficiary of the new mix is Leonard Bernstein's terrific score, which has never sounded fuller, cleaner or more dynamic. That's reason enough to give the 5.1 a listen.

Features ****

The main extras are on the first disc, which starts with an informative commentary from authors on Elia Kazan Richard Schickel and Jeff Young. There is also a conversation between Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones, who collaborated on “A Letter to Elia”. There is a new documentary on the making of the film, an older interview with Kazan, a new interview with Eva Marie Saint, a 2001 documentary on the famous cab scene (including participation by Rod Steiger), an interview with Thomas Hanley, a real longshoreman and an actor in the film, a visual essay on Leonard Bernstein's score, a trailer, and an examination of the film's aspect ratio.

If the final subject is a bit of controversy for you, the second disc includes the full film in the other two ratios it's frequently shown in: 1.85 to 1 and full frame. Because widescreen was still new at the time, and many theatres were not yet equipped to exhibit films that way, this movie was actually designed with an eye for framing it in any of the three ratios. I actually believe the 1.66 is the best way. It doesn't have too much open background space (like the full frame), and doesn't crop the action too tightly (as in the 1.85:1).

Summary:

On the Waterfront will always be remembered as a landmark American film by a landmark American director featuring landmark American performances. It's electrifying and unforgettable. You don't want to miss this Criterion Blu-ray release.

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