On the Waterfront is one of a number of prominent American "social problem" films from the 1950s that fused elements of neorealism with the German-influenced expressionism of popular noirs to achieve an unusual tone of gritty fantasia. In fact, On the Waterfront, with a story that includes a disgraced prizefighter, a bruised virginal dame, and a venal mobster all somewhat improbably bound together, is a noir.
But On the Waterfront, of course, comes with considerably more cultural notoriety than a conventional noir. Marlon Brando's lead performance as Terry Malloy was an explosive and influential testament to the Method acting that he, director Elia Kazan, and many others had been experimenting with in the theater and film for some time. And nesting within the film is an irresistible meta subtext, as many interpreted Terry's climactic court testimony against his former longshoreman cronies as a symbolic justification for Kazan's notorious cooperation with the House of Un-American Activities Committee two years prior.
As a representation of Kazan's decision to testify against former members of the communist party, On the Waterfront is ridiculous. Even on symbolic terms, there's simply no rational correlation between a downtrodden man testifying against the gangsters who murdered several of his friends and a successful artist who participated in a disgraceful moment in American history. In fact, the heroes of Kazan's film, particularly Father Pete Barry (Karl Malden), bear a greater resemblance to the communist party than the evildoers most prominently represented by a charismatic and scary Lee J. Cobb.
Stripped of that historical context (which is debatable anyway; the supplemental materials included in this Criterion Collection edition convincingly suggest that Kazan's assertions that the film was meant as a personal defense are rooted more in coincidence and grandstanding than fact), On the Waterfront remains an incredibly stirring and relevant melodrama. Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety. Besides the famous crucifixion imagery, there's also the generally cramped sense that characterizes many of the domestic and street sequences. You're allowed to feel and see the figurative and literal cages that confine the exploited and poverty-stricken characters as they make their way to the docks as well as to their shoebox apartments and bars as the endless winter wind beats against their faces, which bracingly contrast with the open, free-floating moments Terry shares with his would-be lover, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). (The greatest moment in the film is often unremarked on: the sensual mixture of release and guilt on Edie's face as she slowly throws back her first shot of liquor—and the glow her of face reminds you that cinematographer Boris Kaufman also shot Jean Vigo's glorious films.)
The performances deepen the film's union of the realist and the poetic, especially Brando's. For all the talk of his devotion to grounding his characters in detailed psychological realism, the actor never gave what could be conventionally described as a realistic performance. It's not hyperbolic to call Brando one of cinema's crowning gods: He was simply too physically commanding and deeply weird, too much of an indisputable star, to play an ordinary individual, even one said to be blessed with some talent. With the exception of Terry's walk, which is convincing because the self-consciousness suits the authenticity of a character attempting to affect stature to impress a beautiful woman, nothing Brando does in this film is as ordinary as Terry's meant to be. Even the justly celebrated moment when Terry tries on Edie's glove is rooted more in the symbolic than the authentic. How many men, other than perhaps artists, would respond to Edie's dropped glove with this graceful physical soliloquy of loneliness and sexual hunger?
Brando's brilliance resided in his ability to elevate universal, elemental yearning to the level of myth; he voices what many people may find to be inexpressible, and Kazan and Kaufman's staging renders that myth as earthbound as it's ever going to be. On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member's daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience. (Mean Streets, Rocky, Raging Bull, and many others are unthinkable without this film.) Kazan's ultimate gift may have been his pomposity: He read a gangster story and said, "This is my story, this is our story."
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The 4K digital restoration is remarkable. Blacks are crisp with no inkiness or artificial sense of contemporary tweaking, and the clarity of the night sequences is considerable. Minute details, such as the lettering on signs hanging in bars or the print in background newspapers, are also unusually pristine. An appropriate level of grain reflective of Elia Kazan's desire to avoid studio polish remains. This edition also boasts an unusual feature regarding the aspect ratio. On the first disc the film is presented in the original 1.66:1 ratio, and on the second disc in 1.33:1 and 1.85:1, reflecting the various editions that have circulated on television and in theaters over the years.
As the visual essay on aspect ratios included in the supplements explains, On the Waterfront, along with a number of other films from the era, was shot in 1.66:1 so that it could be cropped to accommodate either the then-new 1.85:1 widescreen format that was developed to compete with television, or the 1.33:1 so that it could be played on, well, TV, with little awkward image compromise. It's a matter of taste, but the 1.66:1 sports a boxier image that suits the film's vertical compositions, thus allowing one to take in more of the textures of city life that's vital to the film's impact. The 1.33:1 format is very similar, but the 1:85:1 favors too many close-ups, which over-emphasizes already over-powering moments.
Two sound mixes are also included to please both the purists and those more contemporary-minded folk who might want to hear the film with a more modern element of sonic dimension. Again, as a purist, I favor the English 1.0, but I couldn't honestly discern much of a difference between the tracks. Both are as beautifully detailed as you'd expect from a Criterion edition this exhaustively researched. Just about a flawless presentation.
Taken together, the supplements document Kazan's rise as a theatrical wunderkind who joined the Group Theater out of college, working with writers such as Tennessee Williams and Clifford Odets, and who later formed the Actor's Studio, which featured legendary students such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Karl Malden. Kazan's intense collaborative nature with actors and writers is emphasized, and his and Brando's devotion to the Method is discussed specifically in "Contender: Mastering the Method." Kazan's controversial HUAC testimonies are obviously discussed at length, and the conflicting reactions Kazan has inspired throughout his career, between admiration for the work and disapproval of his actions, is embodied in the discussion with Martin Scorsese, who is On the Waterfront's most famous and devoted fan. Regrettably, the Scorsese conversation ends just as it appears to be getting really interesting, as he concludes by asking if art can be taken divorced of context. "Who Is Mr. Big?" provides compelling information on the New York dock corruption that inspired the film, and refreshingly emphasizes that Budd Schulberg, who'd been working on the project years before Kazan, is every bit as much an author of the film as the director.
The film's classic moments, subtexts, themes, and score are also discussed at length by a variety of erudite film professionals. Those looking for a feature that best represents a one-stop shop should either listen to Richard Schickel and Jeff Young's audio commentary or check out the 45-minute doc "I'm Standing Over Here Now." There's one curious and pointed omission: Considering the controversy of Kazan's life and career, not one of the many people who felt betrayed by him are interviewed on these discs. Otherwise, this is a breathlessly comprehensive package.
This Criterion Collection presentation of a strange classic is very much a contender.