“On the Waterfront” (1954) is so frequently hailed as a pivot point in naturalistic acting that it’s easy to overlook its hodge-podge collection of disparate performance styles. Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy is one of the most convincing open wounds the cinema has ever witnessed, but Elia Kazan’s understated achievement is to have Terry comfortably share screen space with a bellowing, bellicose Lee J. Cobb (as movie gangster Johnny Friendly) and a Chester Gould-esque gallery of pugs and mugs with names like Truck and Big Mac.
There is scenery chewing a-plenty with as much caricature as characterization, but the focus has always been on the film’s more “realistic” aspects. Brando’s otherwordly charisma understandably draws attention to his nuanced behavior, but the emphasis on the film’s naturalistic qualities stems just as much from the lived-in locations of Hoboken’s docks, brought to gray, gritty life by the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Kaufman had already filmed poetry in motion for director Jean Vigo in the ’30s and made his living by shooting documentaries after moving to the United States in 1942. His ability to synthesize both sensibilities is integral to the success of “Waterfront,” and makes Kazan’s selection of Kaufman, who had not shot a feature film in over a decade, one of the uncanniest decisions of all-time.
Characters who might seem like ethnic or working-class stereotypes on an artificial set are imbued with an enduring verisimilitude when they walk the streets and live in the tenements of the actual longshoremen who are the film’s subjects. The tattered rooftops, the crummy bars, and the spider-web network of piers that link life and commerce are vital characters in their own rights. Credit is also due to screenwriter and journalist Budd Schulberg who spent more than a year stalking the waterfront, mapping outs its landscape and listening to its unique cadences.
Of course, movie realism is a calculated style like any other, and “On the Waterfront” makes no pretense of being a documentary. It is unabashed melodrama with its own overwrought and occasionally implausible flourishes. But there is something so concrete about its spaces and its faces that it’s easy to understand why an enthusiast like Martin Scorsese would say “They were like the people I saw every day. It was as if the world that I came from, that I knew, mattered.”
Pick your favorite scene or shot. For me, it’s the broken-hearted look on Brando’s face when he realizes he’s let down Johnny Friendly, corrupt, two-bit Johnny Friendly, but also the Johnny Friendly who used to take him to the Polo Grounds. In that moment, with that devastated expression, Terry is a child again, and his surrogate father has just told him, “Son, you’ve been a big disappointment.” And when Johnny pinches Terry’s cheek, it’s almost impossible not to recoil at the implied violence. But pick another favorite if you want. They all could be contenders.
Criterion has certainly given us something to talk about.
CinemaScope had just been introduced the year before as one of Hollywood’s wide-screen missiles launched at television, and in 1954 many films were shot with the intention of being projected in different aspect ratios. When “On the Waterfront” premiered at the Astor Theater in New York on July 28, 1954, it was shown in a 1.85:1 ratio, but it also played in the more traditional 1.33:1 full-screen as well as the “compromise” ratio of 1.66:1, a necessity for theaters that wanted to go wide but weren’t equipped to go the full 1.85.
There is no “correct” aspect ratio, and Boris Kaufman was composing with all options in mind. Most most viewers today are more familiar with the 1.33:1 version. Criterion has provided all three here. Disc One, which also includes all of the extras, contains the 1.66:1 version. Disc Two has both the 1.33:1 and the 1.85:1. Folks who like to quibble over these things might argue about Criterion’s decision to place the 1.66 on Disc One, making it more the “default” option, but those are some strange folks. FWIW, I prefer the 1.33 and its gray skies to the close(r)-ups of the wide-screen options.
The digital transfer (same for all three, of course) has a wonderfully grimy look to it, rich in gray tones and with a thick grainy look throughout. For some, this might mean the image isn’t quite as razor sharp as other 1080p transfers, but I love the image quality here.
Listeners can choose between a linear PCM Mono track and a newly-mixed alternate 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. I almost invariably prefer Monaural mixes, and that’s the case here as well, but the surround mix is subtle and evocative at times, and never overbearing. The booming Leonard Bernstein score perhaps booms a bit more in 5.1. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
As mentioned above, Disc Two includes 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 versions of the film. Disc One includes the 1.66:1 version and all of the other extras.
The 1.66:1 feature is accompanied by a commentary track by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, each of whom has written a book on Kazan. I have not had an opportunity to listen to it yet because I had to spend a bit of time with the rest of the voluminous extras here.
First up is an interview between critic Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese. Together, they directed the documentary “A Letter to Elia” (2010). Scorsese talks about his special connection to the world of “Waterfront” and he and Jones provide more context for the film, including mention of “Force of Evil” (1948) and the pre-Brando “naturlistic” acting of John Garfield. This feature only runs 17 minutes, but is packed with information and I wish it had run much longer.
“Elia Kazan: An Outsider” (53 min.) is a 1982 documentary directed by Annie Tresgot, featuring a conversation between critic Michel Ciment and Elia Kazan. Another 2001 interview with Kazan (12 min.), conducted by Richard Schickel, is also included.
We also get a new 2012 documentary produced by Criterion, called “I’m Standin’ Over Here Now” (45 min.) This is also pretty densely packed and balances praise for the film and filmmaker with the usual controversies surrounding Kazan. The feature mixes interviews with scholars and critics Leo Braudy, Lisa Dombrowski, Dan Georgakas, Victor Navasky, and David Thomson.
Criterion produced yet another 2012 feature. “Who is Mr. Big?” (25 min.) consists of an interview with James T. Fisher, author of “On The Irish Waterfront.” Fisher goes into great detail about the real-life figures who formed the basis for several of the characters in the film, especially the mobsters who took over the longshoremen’s union and their involvement with the New York City Catholic Diocese. Great info here.
Make it three new features produced by Criterion. It’s good to have a big budget. Critic Jon Burlingame discusses the Leonard Bernstein score in this 20-minute piece.
“Contender: Mastering the Method” (25 min.) is a 2001 documentary which provides a detailed analysis of the famous back seat “contender” sequence, featuring commentary by Schickel, James Lipton, Rod Steiger, and others.
We’re not done yet. The disc also includes a Sept 2012 interview with actress Eva Marie Saint (11 min.) and a 2012 interview with actor Thomas Hanley, a non-professional actor who played young Tommy, Terry’s protege in the film. This interview is an unexpected treat. Hanley spent most of his adult life as a longshoreman and is quite a character. He has plenty to say about his experiences on the film that you’ve likely never heard before. Don’t skip this one.
Finally, Criterion includes a five-minute video “On the Aspect Ratio” (see the video linked in the media slider above) which explains in surprising detail for such a short feature how Kaufman shot for three different ratios, and how the film was projected in each version in different theaters. Did I say finally? I only lied a little. The massive collection wraps up with a Trailer (3 min.)
The 44-page insert booklet includes an effusively appreciative essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda. The booklet also reprints “A Statement,” a piece published by Kazan in the April 12, 1952 edition of “The New York Times” in which he explains and vehemently defends his decision to testify in front of HUAC. I have chosen not to address Kazan’s role in this shameful chapter of history in this review, and will not do so here. The booklet also includes a 1948 article by journalist Malcolm Johnson about underworld corruption on the New York docks (he won a Pulitzer for it) as well as an article published by Budd Schulberg describing Father John Corridan, the real-life inspiration for Karl Malden’s Father Barry in the film.
“On the Waterfront” presented in three different aspect ratios as well as an exhaustive collection of extras. This is Criterion’s first epic release of the year, and it shouldn’t leave anyone disappointed.