On the Waterfront (DVD)

“I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum — which is what I am.”

Author Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan were both interested in a story of the New York waterfront. Schulberg had been taken by a series of newspaper articles that appeared in the New York Sun in the late 1940s exposing dockland corruption and had written a story based on them that he later adapted into a screenplay. Meanwhile, Kazan had been working towards a similar sort of story with playwright Arthur Miller until the two parted ways in 1952 over Kazan’s testimony to the Un-American Activities Committee concerning Communist infiltration in American show business. Soon thereafter, Kazan saw Schulberg’s story and the two agreed to work together.

After first being turned down by Fox, a production deal was arranged through Columbia with veteran producer Sam Spiegel. The film was shot on location in Hoboken, New Jersey over a 35-day period with a budget of just under $1 million. On the Waterfront opened to excellent critical reviews and positive public reaction, and went on to gross ten times its production costs in its initial release. The film received numerous accolades including eight Academy Awards — Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Story and Screenplay, Cinematography (black and white), and Art Direction (black and white).

Columbia has now released On the Waterfront on DVD in a Special Edition.

Terry Malloy is a young dockworker with some past boxing experience. His life seems to have little purpose and he conveys little in the way of intelligence. Brother Charley works as legal counsel for the local longshoremen’s union headed by the corrupt Johnny Friendly. Friendly takes advantage of Terry by having him arrange to get another dockworker to go to a rooftop where the man is thrown off the roof for not cooperating with Friendly’s local.

When Terry meets the dead man’s sister, Edie, it is the first step in his turning against the union. A local down-to-earth priest, Father Barry, provides further incentive through his defiance of the union. When Terry becomes increasingly critical of the union and it looks as though he may testify at a Crime Commission hearing, Charley tries to warn him to be silent, even drawing a gun on Terry as they talk in the back of a taxi. When Charley fails to reign in Terry, Charley is brutally murdered and Terry goes ahead with his testimony.

With Friendly under indictment, Terry tries to return to work, forcing a final confrontation with Friendly and his henchmen on the waterfront.

Some people in the past have charged On the Waterfront with being anti-union, but there are no anti-labour or anti-union sentiments expressed within it. Sure, the institution in question in the film is a union local, but the issue is not that the union is a problem. It’s quite clear that it’s racketeering within that particular local that is at issue. Racketeering in any organized activity can exist, as we know. That doesn’t mean that the particular activity isn’t worthy. To suggest otherwise about unions as portrayed in a film such as On the Waterfront smacks more of axe grinding than anything else.

On the Waterfront is one of two particular pictures that always seem to summon up the 1950s film scene for me — From Here To Eternity being the other one. Both were among the last major studio productions to be filmed both in black and white and in the old Academy Ratio of 1.37:1 and both dealt with corruption within established institutions. Not that the latter was a particularly new theme for films, but at least for major A productions it had been less common prior to that time. Both productions also were produced by one of the major studios (Columbia), but the loosening grip of the studio system was reflected in the use of independent directors (Fred Zinnemann and Elia Kazan respectively) and in the mix of actors, some of whom owed their roles to their film studio background, while others coming from the Actors Studio in New York were exponents of Method acting.

Kazan always felt that Brando’s work in On the Waterfront was the greatest male performance he’d ever seen. At the time, Kazan was involved with the Actor’s Studio (and an advocate of the “Method” acting it espoused) and Brando was a product of it. The two had worked together before in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, WB) and Viva Zapata! (1952, Fox), so the collaboration seemed like a natural. Even so, Brando initially turned down the part of Terry Malloy although it transpired that he had done so without even reading the script. In the end he was persuaded to change his mind, but not before Kazan had offered the part to Frank Sinatra who accepted. When Brando agreed to come on board, Kazan retracted his offer to Sinatra who was understandably very upset. Things turned out for the best, for Brando’s performance is indeed a tour-de-force. The gradual awakening of Brando’s Malloy to the realities of the world around him is beautifully acted. It’s low key, but there is such a range of emotions and reactions contained in it (toughness, stubbornness, tenderness, resignation, and humour to name some) that one is completely drawn into Terry Malloy’s world and his developing conscience and courage.

Matching Brando are at least three fine supporting performances. One is Lee J. Cobb’s portrayal of John Friendly. Cobb’s sneering, vindictive Friendly is a thoroughly unlikable person and he makes it a pleasure to see Friendly taken down. Cobb seldom failed to give a top-notch acting performance in his films and they’re worth seeking out (even his early bad-guy roles in Hopalong Cassidy films of the late 1930s). The other two performances of particular note are those of Rod Steiger as Charley and Eva Marie Saint as Edie. Steiger is sometimes overlooked, but a careful watching of the taxi sequence shows him trading lines equally effectively with Brando. Saint’s role was her screen debut and merely resulted in a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Award for her.

As mentioned above, On the Waterfront was actually filmed on the docks of New York — not a particularly appetizing location from the look of things. The area appears rundown and grimy, and the sun never seems to shine. As a result, Kazan managed a gritty, documentary flavour that emphasizes the sordidness of the story, so that the film’s look becomes one of its strengths.

Another of the film’s strengths is its music score, written by Leonard Bernstein. Some have criticized the score for being too overpowering, but I’ve always found that it really adds to the mood and power of the film — punctuating the really dramatic moments very effectively. It’s therefore a pleasure to report that Columbia’s DVD does a fine job in conveying that memorable music. The original mono sound track is in very good shape, strangely providing a good sense of envelopment despite it obviously not being a modern surround mix. Maybe I was just so caught up in the story that it came across that way. Certainly, dialogue is clear and free of age-related hiss and distortion.

Columbia’s Special Edition DVD has several supplements to recommend it. There is a screen-specific audio commentary by film critic and author Richard Schickel and Kazan biographer Jeff Young that is very incisive. It offers information on production activities, shooting methods and choices, the actors’ careers, and the historical context, and does so in a pleasant, non-preachy fashion. Schickel and Young work well together and the result is one of the better commentary tracks. We then have a rough half-hour long featurette which keys on the taxi sequence between Brando and Steiger. This is a fascinating exploration of how the scene was planned and carried out, including insight into the actors’ thinking on how to play it. Steiger’s comments are particularly worth hearing. Others interviewed for the piece include Schickel, Martin Landau, and James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” A ten-minute interview with Elia Kazan follows, and provides some of his thinking on casting and working with actors. Other supplements include cast and crew filmographies; a gallery of posters/production photos/film scenes played with dialogue and music clips from the film; and a theatrical trailer plus trailers for two other Columbia productions.

I am placing my comments on the image transfer of On the Waterfront in this section more as a caution than a condemnation of Columbia’s efforts. The black and white image is presented full frame preserving the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, but it’s a mixed bag. Many scenes are very clear and crisp with excellent contrast, but some seem quite grainy and occasionally you’ll find yourself looking at a washed-out daytime sequence or a night-time one that loses much of its shadow detail. Some of this must be attributed to the original gritty look of the film, but much of the rest is presumably a function of the poor quality of the existing film elements. Edge enhancement is not evident. The length of time that this DVD has been gestating suggests that Columbia struggled for some time to come up with an acceptable transfer. The results are far from perfect, but I believe Columbia has probably done the best that it could with what it had to work with. Certainly, the DVD is noticeably superior to previous video incarnations on VHS and laserdisc.

On the Waterfront is one of the great American films — a treat for those who have seen it many times before and for those who have never had the pleasure as yet. Columbia has taken its time to deliver the film on DVD, but the wait has been worth it. The DVD transfer looks quite good considering the source material and a number of interesting supplements provides real added value. Highly recommended.


Both the defendant and co-conspirator Columbia are free to go. Case dismissed.

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