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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 Monaural
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 108 min.
Price: $24.95
Release Date: 10/23/2001

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


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: Special Edition (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 B-

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, a little 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, but I saw no concerns related to edge enhancement.

Black levels were fairly deep and dense, but contrast occasionally came across as a little problematic. A few scenes appeared too bright, which resulted in a modestly washed-out appearance at times. This wasn’t a consistent problem, though, and most of the movie showed good contrast. Shadow detail was reasonably accurate and displayed nice delineation.

Considering the age of the material, I expected print flaws to provide the most substantial concerns, and this was the case. Light grain cropped up on a consistent basis throughout the movie, and a mix of other defects appeared. I saw white speckles, grit, spots, blotches, nicks, and a few tears. In addition, sometimes the frames jumped slightly. Overall, the image of On the Waterfront appeared acceptable for its age, but it showed a mix of concerns that rendered it average at best.

Somewhat stronger - at least on a relative basis - was the monaural soundtrack of On the Waterfront. 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 wasn’t anything special but it functioned effectively for a movie of this era.

This DVD release of On the Waterfront tosses in a mix of extras, starting 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 10-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.

A few minor bits round out Waterfront. A Video Photo Gallery combines filmed still pictures with the movie’s soundtrack; the piece lasts for about four and a half minutes and shows a mix of publicity stills, shots from the set, and posters. We get Filmographies for director Kazan, writer Budd Schulberg, and actors Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint. In the Trailers area we find ads for Waterfront as well as Picnic and Suddenly, Last Summer. Lastly, the DVD’s booklet provides some informative production notes that nicely sum up the project.

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 good for its era and a nice little mix of extras. Overall, On the Waterfront is a DVD that should be pursued by fans of classic films.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3188 Stars Number of Votes: 138
5 3:
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