On the Waterfront appears in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. A challenging movie to bring to home video, the Blu-ray reproduced it well.
Sharpness generally appeared acceptably distinct and accurate. On some occasions, softness crept into the image, but those instances seemed minor and appeared to be an outgrowth of the source photography. Usually the movie looked well defined and concise. No moiré effects and a few jagged edges showed up along the way, and the film lacked edge haloes. Given the prominent grain seen throughout the flick, it became obvious that it didn’t suffer from oppressive digital noise reduction techniques.
Black levels were deep and dense, and contrast looked good; the heavy grain affected that element to a degree – especially during interiors – but overall this was a well-displayed image. Shadows seemed smooth and clear, and the film lacked print flaws; it looked clean and clear. I felt pleased with this accurate portrayal of the source.
I doubt that any Waterfront fans clamored for the film to get a DTS-HD MA 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 showed a little too much reverb, but the speech offered 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.
Note that the Blu-ray also provided the film’s original monaural soundtrack. While I felt pleased with the 5.1 remix, I preferred the mono version. It wasn’t quite as bold as the DTS-HD version, but it came across as more accurate, especially in terms of speech; the lines lacked the mild echo found on the 5.1 edition and seemed more concise. You’ll be happy with either soundtrack, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a reason to recommend the 5.1 mix when the movie didn’t benefit from the expanded soundscape.
How did the Blu-ray compare to those of the 2008 “Best Pictures Collection” Edition? Audio was a bit clearer and more dynamic, but I didn’t hear substantial differences. However, the visuals came across as cleaner, tighter and more film-like. This was a significant step up in quality.
The Blu-ray mixes old and new extras. We start with an audio commentary from Time magazine critic and author Richard Schickel and Elia Kazan biographer Jeff Young. Created for the original 2001 DVD, 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.
A new chat between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones runs 17 minutes, 34 seconds. They discuss the cinema of the early 1950s, the characters and settings of Waterfront as well as cast/performances, music and some other film elements. Essentially Jones interviews Scorsese and we get an appreciation for Waterfront. Enough insights result to make this a worthwhile piece.
After this comes a 1982 documentary entitled Elia Kazan: An Outsider. It fills 53 minutes, 14 seconds with info from Kazan himself; we also get short notes from actor Robert De Niro. The program mostly gives Kazan’s memories of his life and career. Then 72, Kazan remained headstrong and feisty, especially when he discussed controversial elements. The pacing of the show can sag at times, and “Outsider” lacks a clear path, but it still delivers an involving look at the director.
Under I’m Standin’ Over Here Now, we find another documentary. Created in 2012, it occupies 45 minutes and features USC’s Leo Braudy, Kazan Revisited editor Lisa Dombrowski, Cineaste editor Dan Georgakas, Naming Names author Victor Navasky and film scholar David Thomson. They cover Kazan’s biography, the creation of “The Method”, Kazan’s connection to the Communist party, aspects of the development of Waterfront, Kazan’s “naming names” testimony and the fallout from it, script/story topics, characters and cast, shooting the film, the movie’s release, reception and legacy. “Now” covers a variety of elements in a concise, engaging manner that makes it a consistent winner.
Next come two interviews with actors. We hear from Eva Marie Saint (11:10) and Thomas Hanley (12:00). Saint talks about her career and specifics of working with Kazan and Brando as well as other thoughts about Waterfront; she gives us an insightful look at her experiences. Hanley was a kid who lived in one of the buildings where Waterfront was shot and he finagled a part due to proximity; he chats about his life before and after the film and what he went through during the shoot. This was his only role and he adds some interesting thoughts about his perspective.
A 2001 Interview with Elia Kazan comes from that year’s DVD. 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.
Who Is Mr. Big? runs 25 minutes, 46 seconds and features an interview with On the Irish Waterfront author James T. Fisher. He discusses the historical background for the situations and characters found in the movie. This becomes a tight, useful take on the movie’s influences.
Found on the 2008 DVD, we get a featurette called Contender: Mastering the Method. This 25-minute and four-second program largely focuses on the movie’s famous “I coulda been a contender!” sequence. It offers film clips, archival elements and then-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.
With Leonard Bernstein’s Score, we watch a 20-minute, five-second chat with critic Jon Burlingame. As expected, he chats about work on the film and gives us notes about the score. Burlingame gives us a good dissection of the music and its integration into the movie.
In addition to the film’s trailer, Disc One ends with a featurette called On the Aspect Ratio. This goes for five minutes, 11 seconds and talks about the malleable dimensions via which Waterfront was exhibited. It lets us know the relevant issues and shows some examples of the different ratios.
The last component becomes especially important given the content on Disc Two. While Disc One – the “main presentation” of the film – chooses 1.66:1 as “correct”, Disc Two lets us view the other options, as it provides both 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 framings of the movie.
These can be viewed with the same monaural or DTS-HD MA 5.1 mixes found on Disc One. Picture quality appears to be identical among all three framings, so the movie will look go no matter which you select. Prior DVDs offered solely the 1.33:1 option, so it’s nice to have the choice.
As always, Criterion gives us a booklet. In this 44-page piece, we get an essay from filmmaker Michael Almereyda, “A Statement” offered by Elia Kazan in 1952 that discussed his Congressional testimony, a 1948 Malcolm Johnson article that connects to the film’s historical influences, and a Budd Schulberg piece about Father John Corridan, the person on whom the movie’s Father Pete Barry was based. Criterion usually creates good booklets, but this one’s even better than most.
On the Waterfront hit movie screens almost 60 years ago, but it still maintains a lot of power and grit. The film works well for a number of reasons, but Marlon Brando’s stellar acting remains its calling card. The Blu-ray presents very good picture and audio along with a strong collection of bonus materials. Without question, this becomes easily the best version of Waterfront on the market.
To rate this film visit Special Edition review of ON THE WATERFRONT