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Our review of On The Waterfront, published November 13th, 2001, is also available.
Tender love…terrifying conflict!
"Some people think the crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!"
Facts of the Case
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, The Godfather) is an ordinary dockworker just trying to keep his head down and get paid. Like all of his fellow dockworkers, he takes orders from mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, 12 Angry Men), the stern ruler of the waterfront. Terry used to be a fighter, but his career dissolved after his brother Charley (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night)—one of Friendly's close associates—asked him to take a dive. Terry may be a bit unhappy with the way his life has gone, but he wouldn't dream of actually rebelling or protesting. As far as he and nearly everyone else are concerned, only a rat would fight the system.
Alas, when Friendly's cruel leadership causes bodies to start piling up, the denizens of the waterfront grow increasingly restless. The infuriated Father Barry (Karl Malden, Pollyanna) begins urging local citizens to step forward and say something, but most are terrified of what the consequences might be. However, when things turn particularly bleak, Terry begins to reconsider his loyalties. Is there any hope of ending Friendly's tyrannical reign?
For some movie lovers, the greatness of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is soured by the fact that the film is essentially Kazan's metaphorical defense of his regrettable decision to testify and name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. If Kazan is drawing a parallel between Terry Malloy and Jesus Christ while simultaneously drawing a parallel between Malloy and himself…well, it seems like misguided arrogance at the very least (pondering this notion, I couldn't help but recall Chris Brown recently comparing himself to Christ after a parking lot scuffle with Frank Ocean). While it's certainly understandable that such background elements might turn some people off, I can't help but feel it's important to separate a work of art from the personal life of the artist. Roman Polanski's unsavory actions don't diminish the excellence of Chinatown. None of Mel Gibson's nasty slurs can change the fact that Apocalypto is one of the most masterful action films of the 21st century to date. Phil Spector's murder conviction doesn't transform the tremendous All Things Must Pass into a worthless album. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Regardless of the director's deeper intentions, the fact remains that On the Waterfront is a genuinely powerful and truthful film on its own terms.
Together, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando essentially reshaped American movies. Brando's performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront offered a level of startling naturalism that stood out against the more melodramatic acting style that had dominated the movies for decades. While Kazan's direction of A Streetcar Named Desire contained some rather stylized elements, in On the Waterfront he perfected the sort of gritty neorealism that had become prominent in Italian cinema. Though there are still plenty of elements that make the whole thing feel very much like a movie (elements that also have considerable merit, from Leonard Bernstein's vigorous score to Karl Malden's show-stopping dock sermon midway through the movie), at the time of its release it seemed startlingly convincing in a way that most movies never approached.
Watching the film nearly sixty years after its initial release, it doesn't seem quite so naturalistic as it must have backed then, but On the Waterfront hasn't lost an ounce of its potency. If you've ever listened to an interview with Kazan, you'll know that he has a big, colorful personality that proves immediately engaging. That personality is certainly reflected in On the Waterfront, which is bursting at the seams with flavorful elements. From the garbled accents of minor supporting players to the ramshackle sets to the persuasive costume design to the streetwise dialogue to Bernstein's rumbling jazz to the expressive faces of every single member of the cast, On the Waterfront is a movie with a unique voice. It would be an immense pleasure to look at and listen to even if it weren't going anywhere in particular, but thankfully it has a strong story up its sleeve.
Whether or not the movie is really about Kazan's testimony doesn't particularly matter, because the fact of the matter is that it's an effective story that can apply to any number of situations (not that a story should feel an obligation to be about anything larger than itself, mind you). The sheer difficultly of even casually opposing organized crime on the waterfront is conveyed quite successfully. Friendly isn't exactly depicted as a raving monster (at least, not initially—Lee J. Cobb gets frighteningly wild-eyed and savage during the final act) but rather as a firm ruler. The mobsters who populate the film can be quite genial as long as nobody's ruffling any feathers. The people are fearful, but they're also pretty trusting. When one character is pushed off a rooftop early in the film, Terry initially expresses alarm but quickly concludes that there must have been a good reason for it. The film sells us on Terry's unwavering loyalty early on, and also sells us on his eventual transformation. It's a tribute to Brando, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and Kazan that the character's journey never feels like a contrivance of the screenplay.
So much has been written about Brando's performance that there's little more that can be said. There are so many brilliant touches, from the infamous "glove scene" to his even more celebrated, "I could have been a contenda!" speech. But honestly, quite a few others in the movie are operating at Brando's level. Lee J. Cobb makes an impressively steely villain; we believe instantly that this guy could easily attain control of a city. Rod Steiger's understated performance is among the actor's best; his unspoken torment during the aforementioned "contender" scene is just as potent as Brando's anguished speechifying. Karl Malden is the complete embodiment of righteous outrage; the sort of progressive preacher who remembers that Christ was not merely a holy man but someone who took action to achieve significant change. Eva Marie Saint is nothing short of luminous as Brando's love interest; playing a central role in a number of the film's most delicate and exquisitely crafted scenes.
On the Waterfront: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) is one of the more unique releases the company has offered. While the company has certainly provided alternate cuts of movies in the past (Mr. Arkadin, Brazil), this collection provides three different aspect ratios for viewers to choose from: 1.33:1 (more commonly referred to as Full Frame), 1.66:1 and 1.85:1. The explanation for this is helpfully detailed in both the accompanying booklet and a featurette included in the supplemental package, but the 1.66:1 transfer is included on the first disc (along with all of the bonus features) while the 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 transfers are offered on disc two. Whichever way you choose to view the film (I took a look at all three, but watched the entire film in 1.66:1), it looks excellent. The movie certainly has a built-in grit, so one shouldn't expect anything too polished, but detail is strong throughout. Shadow detail is particularly exceptional, as some of the scenes that looked a bit murky on DVD now benefit from stunning definition. Two audio tracks are available: a DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio mix and an LPCM 1.0 Mono mix. While purists will undoubtedly choose the latter, it should be noted that the former has been handled in a tasteful and exceptionally satisfying way. Bernstein's score benefits the most, proving more immersive than ever before thanks to the surround mix. Dialogue is crisp and clean.
The supplemental package is a strong reminder of just why Criterion is so highly-regarded by so many movie buffs. There's so much to dig through, and all of it is well worth your time. First off, a handful of older DVD features are reprised: the audio commentary with critic Richard Schickel and Kazan biographer Jeff Young, a 12-minute interview with Kazan, the "Contender: Mastering the Method" featurette (26 minutes), which spotlights the famed taxi scene and the theatrical trailer. On top of that, Criterion has added a boatload of new material. You'll find new interviews with Eva Marie Saint (12 minutes), Thomas Hanley (12 minutes) and historian James T. Fisher (26 minutes), all of which are insightful and engaging. The 45-minute documentary "I'm Standin' Over Here Now" features thoughts on the film from film scholars Leo Braudy, David Thomson, Lisa Dombrowski, Dan Georgakas and Victor Navasky, and satisfyingly details the film's history and themes. You'll also find a terrific Jon Burlingame video essay on Leonard Bernstein's score (21 minutes), the aforementioned featurette on the different aspect ratios (6 minutes), an hour-long 1982 documentary on Kazan and a booklet featuring essays by Michael Almereyda, Kazan and Schulberg.
Despite its turbulent history, On the Waterfront remains a genuinely remarkable piece of filmmaking. Criterion's Blu-ray release is one of the year's best. It's a must-own for any movie lover.
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