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Blu-ray Reviews

On the Waterfront Blu-ray Review

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#1 of 6 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted February 12 2013 - 09:23 AM

Terry Malloy is one of the greatest characters in American cinema, and Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront in which he plays the major part is one of the cinema’s greatest films. Yet, there is so much more to savor about this great masterwork apart from a mesmerizing central performance of the leading character: astounding, atmospheric locations which house the story, an unparalleled array of characters in supporting roles (played by some of the greatest character actors ever to appear in films), and a music score which bristles and aches and breathes with the characters. Watching On the Waterfront for the first or the fifty-first time is a compelling experience matched by only a handful of other films.

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On the Waterfront (Blu-ray)
Directed by Elia Kazan

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1954
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1/1.66:1/1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: PCM 1.0 English; DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH

Region: A
MSRP: $ 49.95

Release Date: February 19, 2013

Review Date: February 12, 2013

The Film


When boxer-turned-longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) plays a small but instrumental part in the murder of a dockworker who was going to inform on the underworld’s corruption of the dock workers’ union, his conscience begins to eat away at him. Seeing the anguish of the dead man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) as she seeks justice for her brother and finally succumbing to an outspoken priest’s (Karl Malden) cry for him to do the right thing, Terry knows in his heart what he must do, but ratting on the mob won’t be easy since his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is one of the organization’s big shots, and head man Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) makes it known his life won’t be worth a plug nickel if he informs on the Mob.

Budd Schulberg’s screenplay and Elia Kazan’s direction make the Port of New York docks come alive as never before. The bosses who hand out cushy jobs on a whim while hundreds of desperate men go workless day after day, the mistreatment of anyone who doesn’t conform to the dictatorial demands of the boss, and the unspoken, bitter realization that things are corrupt and the little guys are powerless to stop it worms its way into every nook and cranny of the mise-en-scène making the film take on the mood of a docudrama rather than a fictional story. Kazan does his part by taking his camera away from the docks on occasion to explore other equally important venues: the seedy bars, the cramped apartments, the local Catholic church, and, most memorably, the roofs of the tenements with their jungles of television antennas and the pigeon coops which figure so importantly (and symbolically) into the story. As superb as Schulberg’s script is, Kazan takes one of the most important scenes in the film as Terry confesses to the victim’s sister (with whom he’s falling in love) and films it with tight close-ups of faces but with voices blotted out by the shrieks of time whistles and the incessant thumps of the pile drivers – a simply dazzling use of pure cinema. And if these atmospheric touches aren’t enough, the film is further graced by Leonard Bernstein’s achingly poignant and dazzlingly electric background score fraught with the same kinds of tension-filled, goose pimple-inducing frissons he brought to the score of West Side Story (another New York story) a few years later.

Terry Malloy is one of the most iconic roles ever played by Marlon Brando done in a period where he was simply turning out one impressive performance after another and topping himself with every new endeavor. The combination of toughness and tenderness in this well-meaning but aimless bum becomes unforgettable in Brando’s hands, and there will be few who won’t be shaken by his work here. His three male compatriots are no less worthy of commendation: Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and Karl Malden are all dynamic in their own individuals ways and each rising to the occasion when their moments in the spotlight occur. Eva Marie Saint is also unforgettably affecting in her search for justice and later as she somewhat unwillingly but inevitably succumbs to passion with the man she feels betrayed her brother.

Video Quality


The film is generously offered in three screen formats: 1.66:1 (the default on disc one), 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 (on disc two), all in 1080p using the AVC codec. You won’t find a more film-like transfer than this one with an exquisite grayscale rendering featuring particularly crisp whites, a grain structure that seems just perfect for the time and place of the film’s production and the story it’s conveying, and a sharpness level that’s more than pleasing and not unduly edgy. This new digital restoration features an absolutely artifact-free image that’s wonderfully realistic and immersive. The film has been divided into 25 chapters.

Audio Quality


The disc offers both a PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) encode of the original theatrical soundtrack and a newly formulated DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. While the mono track seems just right for the period of the film’s production, it does seem just a bit tinny and with a tiny bit of crackly distortion during the credits. The lossless encode doesn’t betray the film’s basic sound design but opens up Leonard Bernstein’s amazing score so that it can breathe and expand the emotions being portrayed on the screen. I honestly preferred the lossless encode, but it’s great that both are here to satisfy purists and offer others a most pleasing alternative.

Special Features


The bonus features are all to be found on disc one of this two-disc set.

The audio commentary features critics Richard Schickel and Jeff Young. Contrary to many of his other commentaries, Schickel admires the film and is thus matched well with the enthusiastic Young, and both have a rather lively conversation about the movie. There’s more specific information about the movie to be found in the multitude of bonus featurettes, but Schickel’s participation is at least not the instant turn-off it often is on other discs.

Director Martin Scorsese and film historian Kent Jones have an interesting conversation about the extent to which On the Waterfront changed Scorsese’s perception of movies and movie production. They also discuss the film’s terrific acting ensemble and the New York and New Jersey locations used in filming. It runs 17 ½ minutes in 1080p.

“Elia Kazan: An Outsider” is a 1982 documentary on the famous stage and screen director which finds the director musing about his personal and professional lives to that point, his early work as an actor and the founding of the Actor’s Studio, his involvement with the Communist party, the casting of his famous films and his opinions of some of them now. Robert De Niro (whom Kazan directed in The Last Tycoon) also makes some comments in this 53 ¼-minute feature in 1080i.

“I’m Standin’ Over Here Now” is a 45-minute feature on the making of the movie with comments by film historian Leo Braudy, film critic David Thomson, and others. It covers not only the film’s production but also a history of Kazan up to the film’s production and touches on the real-life story behind the fictional characters in the movie. It’s in 1080p.

Eva Marie Saint speaks about the movie and her career prior to her film debut for 11 ¼ minutes in 1080p. Near the end of her conversation, she begins contrasting Kazan’s directorial style to Hitchcock’s in a segue which is rather unexpected.

A 2001 interview with Elia Kazan discussing his involvement with the project adds additional anecdotes to the comments he makes about the movie in the earlier documentary. It runs 12 minutes in 1080i.

Nonprofessional actor Thomas Hanley reminisces about making the movie and also talks about his life as a longshoreman in this 12-minute interview in 1080p.

“Who Is Mr. Big?” delves into the real life story of the waterfront and the various people involved in the corruption there captured in the articles by Malcolm Johnson. Told by author James T. Fisher, this 25  ¾-minute history lesson makes fascinating background for the story Budd Schulberg adapted into a film script. It’s in 1080p.

“Contender: Mastering the Method” is a 2001 featurette in which the famous taxi sequence between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger is dissected by, among others, James Lipton, Richard Schickel, Jeff Young, Kazan biographer Patricia Bosworth, actor Martin Landau, and Rod Steiger himself who also recounts memories of filming the sequence. It runs 25 minutes in 1080i.

The unforgettable score by Leonard Bernstein is analyzed by music historian Jon Burlingame. His video essay runs 20 minutes in 1080p utilizing his own narration and clips from the movie featuring all of the major musical themes.

A video essay on the variable aspect ratios of the movie delves a bit into the history of the transition to widescreen films and the reasons for three different movie versions of the film (also touched on in the enclosed booklet). It runs 5 ¼ minutes in 1080p.

The theatrical trailer runs 2 ¾ minutes in 1080p.

On disc two are the two alternatively framed versions of the film: in 1.85:1 and in 1.33:1. Both feature the choices of the PCM 1.0 or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track, but if you want to hear the commentary, you’ll have to watch the default 1.66:1 version on disc one.

The enclosed 45-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, an artist’s illustrations of scenes from the film, director Michael Almereyda’s appreciation of the movie, Elia Kazan’s infamous written statement about his testimony before HUAC, one of Malcolm Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning articles about waterfront corruption, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s literary portrait of Father John Corridan who served as the basis of Karl Malden’s character in the movie.

The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

In Conclusion

5/5 (not an average)

A great film receives a great home video representation via Criterion’s exceptional release of On the Waterfront. An assortment of viewing and audio options and bountiful bonus features make this one of this year’s must-buy releases. Highest recommendation!

Matt Hough

Charlotte, NC

#2 of 6 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted February 12 2013 - 09:59 AM

Wow! Sounds even more impressive than I expected! thanks for the review. It looks like Criterion has no qualms about which ratio is the correct one.

#3 of 6 OFFLINE   Doctorossi


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Posted February 12 2013 - 11:28 AM

It looks like Criterion has no qualms about which ratio is the correct one.
Yes, and I'm curious if any of those included materials spell out a definitive reason (an indication from Kazan, himself, perhaps?) for their conclusion.

#4 of 6 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted February 12 2013 - 11:51 AM

Their rationale for the default seems to be splitting the difference between the wider and full frame. I watched all three, and I can't argue with them. The 1.66:1 is much the most satisfying.

#5 of 6 OFFLINE   Mike Frezon

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Posted February 13 2013 - 07:12 AM

Originally Posted by MattH.   I watched all three...
  Talk about taking the job as reviewer pretty darn seriously.  You DO still come out into the daylight sometimes...right, Matt?!? 

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#6 of 6 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted February 13 2013 - 08:20 AM

Originally Posted by Mike Frezon    Talk about taking the job as reviewer pretty darn seriously.  You DO still come out into the daylight sometimes...right, Matt?!? 
I am. . . .Dracula. I never drink. . . wine.

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