****/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B
starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger
screenplay by Budd Schulberg
directed by Elia Kazan
by Walter Chaw There is a moment in the middle of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront that stands out for me as one of the defining in my love of movies. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) confesses to his girlfriend Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) that he was involved in the Union execution of her brother, but rather than listen to Terry rehash events with which we're already familiar, a steam whistle drowns him out. The precise way that Terry moves his hands and the expression on Edie's face, growing from a gentle concern to horror, is among the most cinematic moments in the history of the medium. It's breathtaking in its simplicity and subtlety, revolutionary in its presentation and its eye, and exactly the right choice for the film at the right moment.
On the Waterfront was directed by a legend at the peak of his prowess and performed by a Brando-led cast that has arguably never been better, not a one of them. Saint fully inhabits a grief-struck woman with an attraction developing for a bully of a man who, as the film opens, is a half-formed collection of regret and feckless brutality. Karl Malden is showy but effective as a blue-collar priest imploring Terry and his cohorts to betray union leader Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), and Rod Steiger is controlled and nuanced as Terry's union enforcer brother Charley. Although one would think that time and repetition have dulled the power of Brando's much-imitated "I coulda been a contender" speech, rest assured that the sheer weight of melancholy flavouring the pivotal conversation in which it occurs remains undimmed.
The film is also controversial, not for its tale of how a unionized longshoreman testifies against his corrupt union boss, but for the mirror that tale holds up to Kazan's decision to testify against his friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan's genius is his ability to present what is possibly a very personal treatise--he confessed the film was a justification for his loathsome actions in his autobiography but has denied such in every interview since--within an archetypal framework of individuality and courage. Whatever you think of the filmmaker and the reasons behind his making On The Waterfront, there is no disputing that the film, textually and extra-textually, represents a watershed of sorts (along with Kazan/Brando's A Streetcar Named Desire) in terms of a more unmannered approach to celluloid storytelling and the blossoming popularity of the school of "Method acting" favoured by most of the major talent coming into their own during the Seventies. It is an immediate film some 47 years after its release.
On the Waterfront represents so many things: the magic that occurs when a brilliant but troubled actor finds a director able to harness and refine his talents (see also Ullman and Bergman, De Niro and Scorsese, Kinski and Herzog); the passion of a personal project expressed with intelligence and passion; and the death knell for the affected progressions and performances favoured by the Hollywood studio system to that point. If the ending now plays a little optimistically, and if Malden's performance briefly crosses that thin line into theatricality a time or two, they are flaws too minor to grate, especially when considering the transcendence of the picture as a whole. Requisite viewing for any student of the art, On the Waterfront is among the best American films.
by Bill Chambers On the Waterfront was one of the more anticipated DVD releases here at FILM FREAK CENTRAL. Arriving on the format hot on the trail of Citizen Kane and the Godfather trilogy, disc-wise, On the Waterfront doesn't quite deserve to be celebrated in the same breath as those exhaustive packages, but no moviehead should go without it, period. Presented in its original 1.33:1 (fullscreen) aspect ratio, the print used for this high-contrast transfer is near definitive. While the opening shots are as scratched and blurred as ever, On the Waterfront gleams--a far, far cry from its newsreel-quality presentations on late-night TV. The accompanying English mono track has reasonably good dynamic range and offers crystal-clear dialogue.
This Columbia TriStar Special Edition DVD is not densely supplemented. "Contender: Mastering the Method" (25 mins.) centres around the famous exchange in the cab between Brando and Rod Steiger, who emerges from this exclusive featurette as the real hero of said scene. Steiger, the only one of the two actors interviewed, is not sure, since it all worked out in the end (to put it mildly), whether to hold a grudge against Brando for improvising like mad and ditching his co-star when it came time to do Steiger's close-up. Aside from Steiger's heartfelt reminiscing, the featurette is targeted to casual film fans rather than to devotees of the cinema, rehashing as it does not exactly privileged information (courtesy of bootlicking "Inside the Actor's Studio" host James Lipton) about the Stanislavsky Method and Brando's idiosyncratic behaviour.
I much preferred the 12-minute interview with Elia Kazan, which looks to have been conducted a few years back. Kazan, who admits he's "not a modest man," spends his words on praise for screenwriter Budd Schulberg, producer Sam Spiegel, and Brando. Deflecting On the Waterfront's parallels to his own name-naming at the McCarthy hearings, Kazan calls it a romantic, rather than socio-political, film. A video photo gallery (a four-minute montage of production stills and conceptual art scored to dialogue snippets), filmographies for Kazan, Schulberg, and above-the-title cast members, trailers for On the Waterfront, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Picnic, and a probing commentary by Brando biographer Richard Schickel and Kazan biographer Jeff Young (see our review of his book, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films) finish off the bonus material. Originally published: October 29, 2001.
108 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Mono), French DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Columbia TriStar