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