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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Crime > Murder > Mystery > Gangster > Labor > Melodrama > Urban > On The Waterfront (1954/Sony/Columbia/Criterion Blu-ray Set)

On The Waterfront (1954/Sony/Columbia/Criterion Blu-ray Set)


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: B+     Film: B



In the wake of the original Film Noir era, other motion pictures (especially after WWII) found new darkness and realism, but also a realism that had a naturalistic honesty to it and Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954) is one of those with hints of Noir, but is more of an outright melodrama about working class New York City of the time, a time of Unions, raw street living, criminals who do as they please, corrupt people on the take and those who want a better society based on hard work and fair treatment.  Marlon Brando continued to solidify his position as the actor of the moment (and best post-WWII actor, breaking in method acting into cinema permanently) as one-time boxer Terry Malloy, now just trying to find work and happiness in his life.


He has fallen into working for an evil dock boss (Leo J. Cobb) when two of that man’s henchmen kill a well-liked guy from the neighborhood.  Terry is unhappy about this and it starts to change the tone of the neighborhood whose people are getting sick of the same things happening over and over again.  A local priest (Karl Malden) tries to get the workers to help fight back and Terry’s older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) knows more than he is letting on as several people in the know what Terry to talk.  Add that he is getting involved with the sister (Eva Marie Saint) of the man he saw killed and nothing will ever be the same again.


Though the film has dated in some ways and seeing the working men reminds us of how big, helpful and important unions once were in this country before (starting in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1980s) busting them became a very problematic trend, the film boldly deals with the individual, lives wasted, dreams dashed and a side of The American Dream that had not been dealt with in such a manner before.  It is nostalgia for those who remember the labor days and an accurate time capsule record thereof, but everyone here is doing some of the best work of their career and it is luck for all of us that it was such a huge critical and commercial success, also further solidifying Columbia Pictures are a smaller studio permanently turning into a major studio.


Often imitated, it was ahead of independent cinema, the realistic filmmaking wee know as the New York School of cinema, ahead of John Cassavetes and a key influence on the ongoing cinema of Martin Scorsese.  It also got Kazan in trouble during the infamous Hollywood Witchhunts of the time and his response was controversial, but the film remains an uncompromised work of pure cinema that Hollywood used to be capable of making all the time.  It was more realistic than what could be shown on TV (or at least made for it) and more than the great-but-fading radio dramas could relay.


For all this, On The Waterfront remains an enduring American cinema classic and it is a big surprise and huge thrill that Sony and Criterion have given it such exceptionally top rate treatment.  Whether you have seen it or not, this new double Blu-ray edition (also issued on lower-def DVDs) is stunning and here are the technical reasons why…




The 1080p black & white digital High Definition image is available in three different aspect ratios since the film was framed for three types of projection and comes from a 4K scan of the original camera negative.  The result is stunning in all three cases, as lensed by Director of Photography Boris Kaufman (L’Atalante, 12 Angry Men (1957, reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray elsewhere on this site), The Pawnbroker, Up Tight!. Zero For Conduct) who primarily shot it for 1.66 X 1 (included on the main Blu-ray) but also in open matte 1.33 X 1 keeping it TV safe and safe for older movie houses that did or could not go widescreen, plus a tight, intimate 1.85 X 1 for the theaters that already adapted widescreen.  The latter two appear on the second Blu-ray.


I like all three of them, but the largest sets should go for the 1.33 X 1 to really get a feel for the narrow-vision approach of the film’s look.  The 1.66 X 1 is not a compromise and works just fine, while the 1.85 X 1 is tight and makes the film claustrophobic in ways you might not consider.  Ironically, I had just seen a real 35mm black and white print of the film in 1.85 X 1 on a big single-theater screen a few days before this set was announced and it had real silver content and was an older print in fine condition (though the sound was rough analog optical mono and even warped in places including the opening music) but it looked fine throughout (no telling if the print was open matte 1.33 X 1) but the Blu-rays come very close to looking like that print at its best and the grain was similar.  I was very impressed here and nothing was done to hide the age of the film, leaving the grain in tact as should always be the case.


The film’s sound has been upgraded to a DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix and PCM 2.0 Mono, but the DTS sounds better overall with improved clarity on the dialogue and music score by Leonard Bernstein, even if the sound tends to be towards the front speakers.  The original soundmaster for the film was made from a magnetic sound source and the music score was stereophonic, so you can see why the 5.1 would have additional advantages.  Combined with any of the three framings of the image, On The Waterfront plays back as well as it ever has outside of the best 35mm prints as noted.


Extras in this slipcase packaging include a dual DigiPak foldout holding a thicker-than-usual, nicely illustrated booklet on the film including the usually informative text we have come to expect from Criterion.  A new essay and three vintage texts on the film are included.  The Blu-ray adds a fine feature length audio commentary track by Richard Schickel & Jeff Young, Original Theatrical Trailer, Visual essay on the Aspect Ratios, Visual Essay on the Music, a new clip of writer Kent Jones discussing the film with Director Martin Scorsese, the hour-long 1982 documentary Elia Kazan: An Outsider, a new documentary on the film with scholars like David Thompson & Leo Braudy, new interview with legendary actress and Academy Award -winning co-star of the film Eva Marie Saint, a 2001 Kazan interview, new interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley who appeared in the film, new interview with author James T. Fisher about the real people, places and ideas behind his classic work and Contender: Mastering The Method (2001) examining the film’s most famous and influential scene, one of the most influential in cinema history.


Criterion’s On The Waterfront Blu-ray set is an extraordinary release on one of the most important films of the 1950s, a Hollywood landmark and a must-see film for all serious film fans!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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