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Elia Kazan
Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning
Writing Credits:
Malcolm Johnson (suggested by articles), Budd Schulberg (and story)

The Man Lived by the Jungle Law of the Docks!

Marlon Brando gives one of the screen's most electrifying performances as Best Actor in this 1954 Academy Award® winner for Best Film. Ex-fighter Terry Malloy (Brando) could have been a contender, but now toils for boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) on the gang-ridden waterfront. Terry is guilt-stricken, however, when he lures a rebellious worker to his death. But it takes the love of Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the dead man's sister, to show Terry how low he has fallen. When his crooked brother Charley the Gent (Rod Steiger) is brutally murdered for refusing to kill him, Terry battles to crush Friendly's underworld empire. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, this unforgettable drama about Terry's redemption is among the most acclaimed of all films.

Box Office:
$910.000 thousand.
Domestic Gross
$9.600 million.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Monaural
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 108 min.
Price: $134.95
Release Date: 11/18/2008

• Audio Commentary with Film Critic/Author Richard Schickel and Elia Kazan Biographer Jeff Young
• “Contender: Mastering the Method” Featurette
• Interview with Director Elia Kazan

Available Only as Part of “Columbia Best Pictures Collection”


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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On The Waterfront: Columbia Best Pictures Collection (1954)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 23, 2009)

Of the 100 movies on the AFI’s list, I’d seen 58 of them before I started to review DVDs here. At number eight on the chart, 1954’s On the Waterfront long stood as the highest-ranking AFI title I’d never seen. Since it was the sole ultra-classic - at least according to the AFI - that I never took in, I was very curious to give Waterfront a look.

Despite the movie’s status, I must admit I really knew very little about the flick before I watched it. I was aware the Marlon Brando starred in it and that Elia Kazan directed it, and I’d also witnessed its most famous scene- the “I coulda been a contender!” speech - out of context, but otherwise, my knowledge of the piece remained woefully inadequate.

Happily, I can now state otherwise. Waterfront mainly tells the story of Terry Malloy (Brando), a fairly dopey low-life ex-boxer who works on the docks and also does some jobs for local mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). At the start, he tricks coworker Joey Doyle so that some enforcers can put a scare into him. Instead, they toss Joey off of the roof, and Terry’s haunted by his complicity in this scheme. After Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) confronts him, local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) takes on local corruption despite the vicious opposition of Friendly and his goons.

Terry remains conflicted. On one hand, he hates what happened to Joey and the events that start to affect other workers, and he also finds himself falling for Edie; his knowledge of what happened to Joey really bothers him in that instance. However, Terry also has genuine fondness for Friendly, and it doesn’t help that his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is part of Friendly’s gang. He grew up with the attitude that one should never rat on another guy, but the temptation begins to become immense.

Essentially Waterfront is a character piece that shows the battle for Terry’s soul. Granted, it follows the positive side a little more clearly, as Father Barry and Edie get more screen time than do Friendly and Charley. However, that wasn’t a storytelling flaw. There was no need to show the negatives as strongly, for they’re neatly built in to the film’s subtext. It’s obvious that Friendly and the others already have their grips on Terry; the question is if his new enlightenment can take hold.

Of particular note is Brando’s justly celebrated performance as Terry. He never lowers the character to the depths other might reach. After all, he’s an uneducated lout, but Brando brings a sense of strength and realism to the role that makes him three-dimensional. All the cast do fine work, but Brando stands out with this career-defining part.

Waterfront also helped define the career of director Elia Kazan, and it’s a very interesting flick to watch against its historical background. In April 1952, Kazan “named names” of eight members of the communist party in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a choice that haunts him to this day; when he received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, many protested this due to his testimony.

Waterfront comes across as a justification of his choice. From what I know, Kazan essentially denies that the two had much to do with each other, but it’s hard to see the subject in any other way. Terry is shown to do the right thing when he decides to rat out his former friends, and I’m sure that Kazan felt the threat of communism equaled - or surpassed - the more palpable danger of these hoods. While I don’t support Kazan’s decision, I’m not as quick to condemn him as others have been. Times were different 50 years ago, and he may really have thought that he was doing the most socially appropriate thing instead of simply bowing to absurd public pressures.

With or without that subtext, On the Waterfront offers a strong experience. The movie provides a touching and gritty look at a conflicted man, and it’s accentuated by stellar acting, especially from Marlon Brando. Waterfront is a memorable affair that’s held up well over the decades.

Footnote: I couldn’t help but wonder how much Waterfront influenced Sylvester Stallone. The parallels between it and 1976’s Rocky are strong. Rocky and Terry are dopey bums who work for criminals, and they both get a shot at some sort of redemption. I’d be shocked to learn that Waterfront wasn’t part of the Rocky equation.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio B/ Bonus C+

On the Waterfront appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture looked decent for the most part, but it definitely showed its age.

Sharpness generally appeared acceptably distinct and accurate. On some occasions, softness crept into the image, but those instances seemed fairly modest. Usually the movie looked reasonably well defined. Some moiré effects and a few jagged edges showed up along the way, and I also noticed some light edge enhancement in a smattering of shots.

Black levels were fairly deep and dense, but contrast came across as a little problematic. Some scenes appeared a bit too dark, which resulted in lowered visibility for shadows. These concerns weren’t immense, but they made a few shots less clear than they should’ve been.

Without question, grain became the biggest problem here. It varied from light to heavy throughout the film, but it was pretty much always noticeable. Even in bright daylight scenes, prominent grain appeared. I don’t expect – or want – a movie like this to be devoid of natural film grain, but I thought the image looked messy at times due to this factor.

Which was a shame, since much of the rest of the transfer was pretty good. Other source flaws popped up infrequently. I noticed the occasional speck, mark or hair, but not many of those concerns marred the presentation. Without the excessive grain, I’d have liked this transfer much more than I did. As it stood, I felt it deserved a “C”.

One note related to aspect ratio: for the longest time, pretty much everyone – including me - thought that 1.33:1 duplicated the film’s original theatrical exhibition. It turns out that this was incorrect. While filmed “open matte” and probably shown 1.33:1 at theaters not yet equipped for widescreen, Waterfront was shot for 1.85:1. The “open matte” nature of the flick means that the 1.33:1 display doesn’t lose anything from the intended image, but it’s still not correct. Apparently Waterfront recently ran on a cable movie network in the right 1.85:1 ratio, so I don’t know why Columbia chose to stick with the erroneous 1.33:1 for the new DVD.

I doubt that any Waterfront fans clamored for the film to get a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, but here it is anyway! The expanded soundfield remained reasonably restrained, at least, so it didn’t distract from the drama. Music broadened to the side and rear speakers in a moderate manner. Stereo separation never seemed great, but the other channels gave the score a little greater breadth that suited it fairly well.

I noticed some mildly – and slightly awkwardly – localized speech, and occasional effects also emanated from the sides. Scenes at the docks opened up in a decent manner, and other “action” sequences like the attack on the church added some involvement to the mix. I didn’t hear much from the surrounds throughout the film; they bolstered things in a general way and that was about it.

Audio quality was fine for its age. Dialogue came across in a manner that was typically thin and flat for the era, but the speech showed fairly good clarity for the most part. I heard no significant edginess, and intelligibility was solid. Effects demonstrated nice distinctiveness and accuracy; though they offered some of the same tinniness found in the dialogue, they also provided reasonable depth.

The film’s score functioned best of all. It also contained some drab tones, but it displayed nice breadth at times. The rhythmic aspects of the music worked best, as drums thumped quite well. I heard no problems related to background noise of any sort; the audio seemed clean. Overall, the soundtrack of On the Waterfront was pretty good for its age.

How did the picture and audio of this 2008 “Columbia Best Pictures Collection” edition compare to those of the 2001 Special Edition? In terms of quality, the audio appeared similar for both, though the new release boasted more dynamic bass response.

In addition, the 2008 disc added the 5.1 soundfield. Depending on one’s point of view, that could be good or bad. I thought the expanded soundscape worked fine for the movie, but I also felt the original monaural track – also found on the 2008 release – was more than adequate. The 5.1 mix is a good option if you want it, and you can still stick with the mono track if you prefer, so the 2008 disc gets the nod in terms of audio.

Things became more complicated when I compared the visuals. I gave both DVDs “C” ratings for picture, but each one earned the “C” for different reasons. Both featured fairly similar sharpness, though the 2001 disc lacked edge enhancement and was a little bit tighter. While the 2008 disc tended to be a bit too dark, the 2001 sometimes seemed too bright. Again, I preferred the visuals of the 2001 presentation in that regard, as the contrast seemed a little more accurate there.

The biggest difference came from source concerns. While the 2001 disc suffered from only light grain, it displayed quite a few specks, marks and other defects. On the other hand, the 2008 transfer lacked all the print flaws but it presented much heavier grain.

Objectively, this was why they both ended up with “C” grades. Subjectively, I liked the 2001 transfer quite a lot more than the 2008 presentation. I found it easier to live with the print flaws; the grain was so all-pervasive that it became much more difficult to ignore. If only Columbia could find a way to combine the positives of both images, then we’d have a great-looking Waterfront. Unfortunately, both are compromised, though I preferred the 2001 presentation.

The 2008 version includes some of the extras from the 2001 release. We start with an audio commentary from Time magazine critic and author Richard Schickel and Elia Kazan biographer Jeff Young. Both men were recorded together for this running, occasionally screen-specific track. I included the latter disclaimer because the two periodically discuss the material on the screen, but they spend most of their time with other topics.

On the negative side, this was a somewhat cacophonous commentary. At times it felt more like two running monologues instead of a discussion between peers. It seemed that each man spent his quiet moments trying to barge back in to the conversation, and the two speak on top of each other quite frequently. They needed a mediator to keep them calm enough to let the other one finish his sentence.

Nonetheless, the information offered in the track seemed very good. Schickel and Young cover a lot of aspects of the production, but they mainly concentrate on interpretation and subtext. Of course, this includes some material about Kazan’s HUAC testimony, but it goes into many other areas as well. Of particular note was a great discussion of Brando’s abilities and issues. Overall, this commentary was somewhat disorganized, but it still added a lot of good material to the table.

Next we find an “exclusive featurette” called Contender: Mastering the Method. This 25-minute and 13-second program largely focuses on the movie’s famous “I coulda been a contender!” sequence. It offers film clips, archival elements and new interview snippets with actors Rod Steiger and Martin Landau as well as a mix of critics and film buffs like Inside the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton, Richard Schickel, Jeff Young, David Garfield, and Patricia Bosworth.

Some may dislike the emphasis on the one scene, but I thought it worked well. It was interesting to get into that snippet so deeply, and “Contender” included a lot of compelling analysis and notes about the film. For the record, some other topics came up as well, but the show really did concentrate mostly on the “contender” scene. Overall, it was a solid little examination of this segment.

Also very good was the Interview with Elia Kazan. The director offered a decent little synopsis of the film’s origins and the production in this 12-minute piece. He proved to be quite frank, as when he referred to producer Sam Spiegel as a “terrible, terrible guy”, and he added a lot of useful information about the film. By this point, some of the material was redundant, but after an audio commentary and a documentary, that was inevitable. The Kazan interview was still informative and useful.

Does this edition drop anything from the original DVD? Yup – we lose a few minor tidbits. The new disc omits a “Video Photo Gallery”, filmographies, and trailers for Waterfront and a few other flicks.

On the Waterfront hit movie screens more than half a century ago, but it still maintains quite a lot of power and grit. The film works very well for a number of reasons, but Marlon Brando’s stellar acting remains its calling card. The DVD provides adequate but flawed visuals with audio that seems very good for its era and a few decent extras. Overall, On the Waterfront is a DVD that should be pursued by fans of classic films.

As I write this in November 2008, this particular edition of On the Waterfront can be found only as part of “The Columbia Best Pictures Collection”, an 11-movie set that also includes It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, From Here to Eternity, All the King’s Men, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, Kramer Vs. Kramer and Gandhi.

While some of the other exclusives found in this set demonstrate substantial improvements over their predecessors, that isn’t the case with Waterfront. I like the movie’s new Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but I’m also perfectly happy with the original monaural sound from the prior disc, so the remix shouldn’t motivate anyone to buy this set.

In addition, both releases provide inconsistent visuals that have different pros and cons. Despite a lot of source flaws, I prefer the original 2001 transfer. That leaves the 2008 disc as a decent presentation but it’s a disappointment. If you want to buy the “Best Pictures Collection” to get all the other movies, you’ll be fine with this release, but you may want to hold onto the original disc as well.

Footnote: in addition to On the Waterfront, the “Columbia Best Pictures Collection” includes four other exclusive transfers. The versions of From Here to Eternity, All the King’s Men, Oliver! and Kramer Vs. Kramer all appear here and nowhere else.

As I write this in January 2009, the 2006 transfers of It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You may or may not be bound to “The Premiere Frank Capra Collection”; Columbia released remastered editions in December 2008. I expect those are the same as the “Premiere” editions, but I don’t know that for a fact. Kwai and Lawrence provide the same versions found in their 2008 Special Editions, while A Man For All Seasons and Gandhi come from 2007 SEs. At least this means the “Best Pictures Collection” never relies on transfers from the early 2000s or earlier; none of the set’s editions were produced before 2006.

To rate this film visit Special Edition review of ON THE WATERFRONT

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main