Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger
Country: USA
Running Time: 108 min
Year: 1954

On the Waterfront was a huge success on release, taking a decent haul at the box office and winning 8 Oscars, including Best Film, Director, Actor and Screenplay, and the film is now considered a cast-iron classic. However, it took such a while to get off the ground it’s a miracle it ever got made at all. It started life as a script written by Arthur Miller called ‘The Hook’. Elia Kazan, a friend of Miller’s, had agreed to direct it and the pair approached Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures about making it. He liked the general idea but was against depicting corrupt union officials on screen, so asked for the ‘villains’ of the film to be changed to Communists. Miller refused and Cohn was suspicious of this, feeling the playwright was against making the film “pro-American”.

The project ground to a halt and, not long after this, Kazan went on to testify to the House Committee of Un-American Activities (a.k.a. HUAC), giving the names of 8 (former) Communists. Despite these names already being known to the Committee, the action lost him a lot of friends in Hollywood, including Miller. So Kazan turned to Budd Schulberg, who had also named names in front of HUAC, to help him rewrite ‘The Hook’.

The pair then approached Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, who didn’t like it at all, coining the infamous quote – “who’s going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?” Finally, Kazan and Schulberg convinced Sam Spiegel to produce the film and it moved into production, though Schulberg and Spiegel did not get on, clashing over the script on many occasions.

Despite this rocky path leading up to the film, the stars somehow aligned during production and a masterpiece was born. It was a favourite of mine in my early years as a film enthusiast but I’ve not seen it in a long time, so I took the chance of reviewing Criterion’s new Blu-ray release to allow me to revisit the film.

On the Waterfront is based loosely on various incidents that occurred on New York City and New Jersey’s waterfronts back in the 40s and early 50s. The docks in the film, and indeed in real life, were controlled by crime syndicates who drew a great amount of profit from them and controlled who would work among the longshoremen, taking unjustified cuts from their wages. In the film, the head of these gangsters is Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and we immediately see him arrange the murder of Joey Doyle, a dock worker who was going to testify against him to the crime commission.

Ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly set Joey up for the ‘accident’ that sent him to his death. Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand-man so Terry is part of the gang too, though more on the sidelines. When he starts to fall for Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who has only recently returned home from studying at a convent, Terry begins to have doubts about what he’s been involved with. When crime commission agents start snooping around and issue Terry with a subpoena, he is torn over what to do, particularly after Edie learns what he did. Shopping in Friendly would be the decent and lawful thing, but there’s a code on the docks that workers should be “D & D” (deaf and dumb) when it comes to any unlawful activity.

Also attempting to get Terry and other longshoremen to testify is Father Barry (Karl Malden), who’s had enough of watching his parish suffer under the ‘rule’ of Friendly. He and Edie put pressure on Terry, who would be putting his and his brother’s life in jeopardy if he testifies.

on-the-waterfront

The film holds up possibly even better than I remember. It truly deserves its classic status. It’s one of those films that is firing on all cylinders in practically every department. The performances are what most people praise and rightfully so. This might well be Brando’s finest work and that’s really saying something. He perfectly captures the inner turmoil of his character as well as the blend of toughness and sensitivity that makes Terry’s story so rich and compelling to watch.

The other actors mustn’t be forgotten though. Cobb always excels playing a nasty piece of work and he’s a powerful force when on screen. Saint is perfect too, balancing her delicate waif-like appearance with a strong will and great emotional depth. Malden, though given the less interesting soap-box role, does a fine job, delivering some truly stirring speeches. These moments are perhaps the more forced, stagey elements of the film, but Malden makes them soar. Steiger isn’t in it a great deal and keeps things more low key than he would later in his career, but delivers the goods in the film’s most famous scene.

Yes, the “I could have been a contender” sequence. It’s oft-quoted and has been shown separately a lot over the years, but it remains an incredibly powerful and beautifully performed two-hander. What makes the performances and writing all the more impressive is that the scene is easily the most poorly shot moment in the film. Whereas practically everything else was filmed on location in an elegant but gritty documentary style, that scene ended up a faked hodgepodge. They weren’t given a real taxi to shoot in, only one chopped in half but with no back-projection to fake movement. So they had to improvise on the day and slapped some venetian blinds in the back window and waved lights around to simulate passing signs and headlights. It looks terrible when you pay attention to it, but the work the actors are doing is so electrifying you never notice.

Away from this one fake set, Kazan does a great job of keeping the film as authentic and ‘real’ as possible. On top of the aforementioned location filming, he used a lot of actors from his Actors Studio who were well-versed in ‘the method’, as well as non-actors who lived in the area. As such, with professional actors bringing their naturalistic modern style to the screen, alongside raw performances from locals, the characters feel natural throughout. Schulberg’s script also ensures that the dialogue feels ‘salty’ and truthful, other than perhaps Father Barry’s speeches, which have a loftier air.

Also impressive and greatly adding to the film is Leonard Bernstein’s score. Prior to this, the legendary composer and conductor had never worked on an original film score not adapted from a stage musical, and he never did again. This is a shame as his work here is magnificent. Kazan was known to have found the music over the top, but I think it’s wonderfully shaded, knowing when to pare things down and when to play it big. The orchestration seems more stripped back than most scores from the era in fact, with minimal quiet sections and louder cues relying on pounding percussion rather than employing as many instruments as possible for impact. It’s an often beautiful and immensely effective soundtrack.

I could go on praising the film but it’s well-known and well-loved so there’s little point. If you haven’t seen it, you really must. It’s an absolute masterpiece, through and through. Everything about it, from the performances to the cinematography to the music, is all first class and make for a rousing and spine-tingling drama. Even when you know which way the film will turn by the end you’re riveted to it and deeply moved by it.

On the Waterfront is out on 2nd December on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. You get three choices of aspect ratio with which to view the film as the intended or favoured one is debatable and it was screened in various ways on its release. All versions here are sourced from the same print so are equal in terms of quality. I found in places that the grain struggled a fraction being digitised, but not nearly enough to be off-putting or noticeable on a smaller screen (I watched on a projector). Other than that, the picture looks great and audio is crisp and clear too.

There’s a whole host of special features included in the package:

– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
– Alternate presentations of the feature restoration in two additional aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen) and 1.33:1 (full-screen)
– Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS -HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition
– Commentary featuring authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
– New conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones
– Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982), an hour-long documentary
– New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with scholar Leo Braudy, critic David Thomson, and others
– New interview with actress Eva Marie Saint
– Interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001
– Contender, a 2001 documentary on the film’s most famous scene
– New interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley, an actor in the film
– New interview with author James T. Fisher (On the Irish Waterfront) about the real-life people and places behind the film
– Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score
– Trailer
– PLUS : A booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Almereyda and reprints of Kazan’s 1952 ad in the New York Times defending his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, one of the 1948 New York Sun articles by Malcolm Johnson on which the film was based, and a 1953 Commonweal piece by screenwriter Budd Schulberg

It’s an impressively large amount of material and there’s some great stuff in here. ‘Elia Kazan: Outsider’ is the gem. I’ve seen it before as it was included on Eureka’s Boomerang! disc but it’s been a while and I still found it fascinating on a second watch. Kazan is fairly frank and a lot of his career is covered in the hour-long running time. Richard Schickel and Jeff Young’s commentary was slightly disappointing though. The pair spend most of the time praising how wonderful everything is so it’s not particularly enlightening, though it’s still of value.

The rest of the interviews and featurettes are well compiled and worth listening to, though there’s a bit of cross-over here and there. The Thomas Hanley and James T Fisher pieces are particularly interesting as they offer real-life accounts of what was happening on the waterfront and what happened in the years following the release of the film. The essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score is worth a special mention too as it analyses most of the various music cues in the film as well as giving us a history of the great composer’s involvement in the process.

So all together it’s a fine package for a wonderful film and comes very highly recommended.

On the Waterfront - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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