In 1952, after initially refusing to comply with his subpoena, director Elia Kazan sat before the House on Un-American Activities Commission to give reluctant testimony under oath and ‘name names’ regarding the infiltration of known communists and communist sympathizers within the entertainment industry. His contribution to what ultimately became known as the McCarthy witch hunts (more formally regarded as ‘The Red Scare’) did not directly influence the blacklisting of individuals in Hollywood per say, but it did much to tarnish Kazan’s reputation within the industry. For his sacrifice Kazan lost many friends and arguably, several choice directing job opportunities. Some never forgave him. Even as late as 1999 the Hollywood community remained divided in their admiration of Kazan: the man and his work.
Elia Kazan has always denied that On The Waterfront (1954) was his artistic rebuttal to being forced to give testimony, although in hindsight it is virtually impossible to view the film without first considering it as something of a ‘response/justification/apology’ or perhaps a combination of all three, made by Kazan to his detractors, to settle a score and/or set the record straight. Throughout the 1940s Kazan had been a darling of Darryl F. Zanuck over at 20th Century-Fox, responsible for some of the most probing social commentaries ever put on film including the Oscar-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949). But when Kazan proposed On The Waterfront to Zanuck he was met with a polite, though very direct refusal. The film would also become the cause of a permanent rift in Kazan’s friendship with noted playwright Arthur Miller, who had written ‘The Hook’ – a preliminary play eventually morphing into ‘On The Waterfront’ by Budd Schulberg. Schulberg’s screenplay was loosely based on a series of articles appearing in the New York Sun, detailing real life corruption and graft run amuck on the New York and New Jersey docks.
After Zanuck rejected the story Kazan turned to Schulberg, who pitched the project to producer Sam Spiegel. Eventually a deal was ironed out with Columbia/Horizon Pictures on a shoestring budget and 36 days location shooting in Hoboken, New Jersey. Spiegel, known for his somewhat ruthless nature, frequently tested Kazan and Schulberg’s patience. Meanwhile the film’s star, Marlon Brando, was suffering from bouts of depression and a mounting insecurity that he was unable to fully commit to the part. Brando, who had recently lost his mother, was in analysis. Reportedly, he left the set for a session, emotionally distraught in the middle of the penultimate – and now famous – confrontation scene between longshoreman union stooge, Terry Malloy (Brando) and his brother Charley ‘The Gent’ (Rod Steiger); forcing Steiger to go it alone for his close ups.
Kazan shot On the Waterfront in the dead of winter, evoking his stark realism through the haunting frosty atmosphere poetically captured by Boris Kaufman’s cinematography. The cold weather wore Brando down. But it also lent a distinct air of tension to the story; the actors somehow looking more careworn and gaunt in this unflattering winter light, a verisimilitude that Kazan insisted would have been impossible to recreate anywhere else.
On the Waterfront’s central theme is arguably one of self-reflection and self-discovery; the introspective Brando bringing a very earthy genuineness to Terry Malloy – the ex-prizefighter, now thug muscle being exploited by his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) for Union mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Superficially, Terry is a thoughtless mug. Yet, there is something about him that lures the likes of good Catholic girl, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) to his side. As she points out “It’s not just having a brain, but knowing how to use it.”
Terry becomes smitten with Edie, a wise and willful college girl who has had some formal education with the Sisters of St. Anne in Tarrytown. The genius in Brando’s performance lies in his ability to gently reveal to both Edie and the audience a softer side. As Terry later declares to his brother, he “could have been somebody – a contender – instead of a bum.” This bittersweet realization; that Terry has sacrificed – and has been sacrificed by his own flesh and blood for the sake of a few lousy dollars – hits both men between the eyes. But it also breaks each man’s heart and forever alters Terry’s self-perception.
On the Waterfront has one of the most explosive openers in movie history. Terry Malloy arrives at the apartment of fellow longshoreman Joey Doyle, who has agreed to testify for the Waterfront Commission against mobbed up union boss Johnny Friendly. Terry lures Joey to the roof where Johnny’s men are waiting to toss him over the side. Joey’s father (John F. Hamilton), his sister Edie and Father Barry (Karl Malden) arrive on scene too late to discover Joey’s crushed body lying in the open field. As Father Barry prays for Joey’s soul Edie bitterly disavows the sanctity of the church, viewing the clergy as just a bunch of ‘gravy train riders with turned around collars’. Father Barry takes Edie’s words to heart. Indeed, he is a true man of the cloth with renewed convictions stirred by her admonishment of him.
The Waterfront Commission know that Friendly is tied into corruption and racketeering but are unable to convince any of the longshoremen to testify against him. They would rather endure the humiliation of having to kowtow to Friendly than suffer the shame of informing. And that’s the least of their worries. The last three men who dared stand tall all died suddenly. Immediately following Joey’s murder Terry begins to express remorse for his part in luring a fellow mate to the roof under the ruse that one of his pigeons has strayed from its rooftop coop. Charley sternly ‘encourages’ Terry to reconsider his loyalties. But Johnny seems content to merely placate Terry’s concerns with a little bit of extra cash and a promise from the foreman, Big Mac (James Westerfield) that he will be elevated to a cushier position on the docks just for keeping his big mouth shut.
Terry takes advantage of these perks. But his conscience will not rest. Pursuing Edie under Charley’s orders to a meeting at the church where Father Barry hopes to recruit new support against Friendly, this scant gathering of protestors is broken up when some of Friendly’s thugs begin throwing rocks through the windows of the church’s basement. The panicked men run into the street where they are assaulted with baseball bats and chains. Terry takes Edie out the back way, sparing her this confrontation. But one of the attendees, Timothy J. ‘Kayo’ Dugan (Pat Denning), who is badly beaten, agrees to stand against Friendly if Father Barry will stand with him in this cause. Barry agrees and Dugan sneaks off to talk to two of the Commission’s emissaries (Robert Webber and Martin Balsam).
Word of this betrayal does not remain secret for very long however, and Friendly arrives on the docks the next day to oversee ‘an accident’. As the men raise palettes of whiskey from one of the ship’s cargo holds the crane operator deliberately drops a shipment on Dugan, thus killing him in plain view of his coworkers. The murder has served two purposes – first, to silence the stoolie, but second, as an obvious warning to anyone else considering as much. Father Barry prays over Dugan’s body, but then shifts to a defiant admonishment of Friendly and his mobsters. Friendly’s men accost Father Barry, pelting him with rotten eggs, bottles and a tin can that creates a rather large gash in his forehead. Undaunted, Father Barry finishes his speech to the men as Edie and Terry look on.
Edie and Terry leave the dock and Terry invites Edie to his favorite bar for a drink – her first beer and chaser – before the couple decides to crash a wedding reception and share in a dance. Regrettably, their romance is awkward at best and overshadowed by the guilt Terry feels at playing his small part in Joey’s murder. The next day Terry attempts to engage Father Barry in a confession. But the priest is angry and unwilling to hear Terry out until Terry confides that he was involved in Joey’s murder. Father Barry decides to test Terry’s loyalties. If he can repeat his story to Edie – the girl he supposedly loves – then Father Barry will believe Terry is willing and ready to do the right thing.
So Terry takes Edie to the waterfront in plain view of Father Barry to make his confession to her. This moment of revelation is brilliantly staged by Kazan who obliterates virtually all of Terry’s dialogue with grating sounds from the waterfront docks; cranes operating and screaming ship whistles; relying almost exclusively on Eva Marie Saint’s reaction to get the point across. Edie retreats, partly in anger, partly from fear, but also out of an anxious sense of conflicted loyalty toward her late brother and this man she has come to love.
In the meantime, Friendly has begun to suspect that Terry’s philosophy of ‘do unto others before they do unto you’ has softened. He orders Charley to find Terry and have ‘the talk’ with him. If Charley cannot convince Terry to see things Friendly’s way he is to ‘take care’ of the situation, which can only mean one thing. Charley collects Terry in a taxi for their ride to 437 River Street; coaxing, then ordering Terry at the point of a gun to see things Friendly’s way. But Terry cannot go back to how things used to be. In what is undeniably On The Waterfront’s most poignant and bittersweet moment of realization, Terry recalls the night he gave up his promising career as a prize fighter, throwing his match at Charley’s request because Friendly had already bought in on a piece of the action. This decision effectively ended Terry’s chances to ever legitimately box again and it forever branded him as nothing more than Friendly’s complicit stooge.
Coming to terms with this fraternal betrayal, Charley realizes he cannot murder his own brother. Instead he lets Terry off at the corner, returning to Friendly’s hangout to face the consequences, in effect knowing he has signed his own death warrant. Terry bursts in on Edie to beg her forgiveness. Although she defies her feelings at first, Edie cannot resist Terry any longer. She sees the good in him. More important, he has come to know it within himself. Terry and Edie make a narrow escape from a truck attempting to run them down in a tight alley. There, Terry discovers Charlie’s body dangling from a meat hook. Enraged and determined to avenge his brother’s murder, Terry arrives with a pistol at the longshoreman’s bar – the backroom a favorite watering hole for Friendly and his men. But the bar is empty.
Father Barry confronts and subdues Terry, telling him that he can either choose to continue to live like and animal or take the high road by testifying for the Waterfront Commission against Friendly. Terry agrees and later testifies in open court. Friendly publicly threatens him, saying “You’ve dug your own grave. Now go and fall into it!” With the hearings over it is only a matter of time before Friendly and his men face incarceration. But Terry arrives on the docks that afternoon to confront Friendly mano a mano.
Friendly takes on Terry and quickly realizes he is unable to defend himself. Instead, he calls in three of his toughest goons to brutalize Terry as the rest of the longshoremen look on. Beaten almost to the point of unconsciousness, Terry is tended to by Father Barry and Edie. But Pop Doyle has decided he has had quite enough of Friendly’s mob rule, unexpectedly pushing the union boss off the pier and into the water. Imbued with a renewed spirit of solidarity the longshoremen watch as Terry – who is barely able to stand – struggles to join his crew for the day’s work. His courage ignites their social conscience. They follow without Friendly’s okay, thereby splintering the mob boss’s hold on them once and for all.
On the Waterfront is a powerful indictment of unions. But to Schulberg’s credit and Kazan’s swift direction the film steadily evolves into so much more than just a ‘message picture’. There is nothing of Hollywood in On The Waterfront. The performances are uniformly and exceptionally well crafted. In retrospect, they also seem undeniably truthful. Brando’s is, of course, the standout and he acquits himself with a rare precision, above and apart from his ‘group theater’ method training. Perhaps the actor’s grief and anxiety over the loss of his mother helped in his preparation for the role. Whatever the means the actor used to explore his character, there is little to deny Brando his moment in the spotlight. His Terry Malloy never seems rehearsed, rather, vital and real – a person/not a character. Yet, the same must be said of Karl Malden’s defiant priest, Rod Steiger’s steely point man, and Eva Marie Saint’s wounded school girl. No, Kazan has managed to surround himself with a peerless roster of professionals; an insular enclave of true believers to create a masterwork of timeless, seamless, breathless perfection.
On The Waterfront has been a candidate for a complete digital restoration for some time. Due to Columbia’s improper storage of original materials over the years, virtually all video incarnations have looked poor to merely passable, suffering from a barrage of age related damage and artifacts that have blunted, though never obscured the raw intensity of the piece. Criterion’s new Blu-ray, with revitalized elements rendered in 4K from Sony, has at long last given us On the Waterfront in a hi-def rendering sure to become a touchstone for future generations to review and enjoy.
On the Waterfront holds a rather dubious distinction of being released at the cusp of the widescreen revolution. Because some theaters were equipped to project widescreen images while others were not it is possible to have seen On The Waterfront during its original theatrical engagement in aspect ratios ranging from standard 1:33.1 to 1:85.1. Criterion has given us the option to view the film three ways: in the aforementioned ratios and also in 1:66.1. Personally, I think the 1:66.1 ratio suits the film’s visuals the best. There seems to be too much information on the top and bottom of the screen in standard format, while undue cropping cuts off the tops of heads in 1:85.1.
Regardless of which version one chooses to view, all three have been impeccably remastered in 4K, dual layered hi-def. The results are astounding. The B&W image exhibits quantum leaps forward in tonality and texture with film grain looking very natural indeed. There is no noise or other digital artifacting for a visual presentation that will positively blow you away. Contrast is superior to anything we’ve ever seen on home video. Fine details pop, with a startling amount of information in hair, skin, clothing, etc. Occasionally, the backgrounds can appear ever so slightly soft, but I am quite certain this is in keeping with the original cinematography and not a flaw of the transfer. Criterion and Sony have also given us an impressive option of listening to the original mono mix – beautifully restored – or delving into a new 5.1 DTS surround that is subtly nuanced and in keeping with the original intent, while ever so slightly opening things up sonically for a more immersive listening experience. Leonard Bernstein’s score impressively shines herein, as do subtle spatial separations in SFX – particularly in scenes taking place at the docks.
Criterion has also padded out the extras with a bumper crop of goodies guaranteed to fascinate and delight. Richard Schickel and Jeff Young’s audio commentary is a holdover from Sony’s original DVD release. But we also get a new conversation with Martin Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones that is just under 20 min. There are two exceptional offerings: a documentary on Elia Kazan made in 1982 and a brand new ‘making of’: each running just under an hour. There’s also an interview with Eva Marie Saint, a featurette (also from the DVD) that deconstructs the ‘contender’ scene with competent critiques, Schickel’s interview with Kazan, a new interview with author James T. Fisher, a visual essay on Bernstein’s score and another on deconstructing the proper aspect ratio for the film.
Finally, Criterion has always been known for providing thick booklets to augment their DVDs and Blu-rays, but this one is exceptionally well stocked with essays from filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Kazan’s own defense of his HUAC testimony, one of Malcolm Johnson’s articles that inspired the screenplay, plus a 1953 op/ed from screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Bottom line: On the Waterfront is Elia Kazan at his very best: a watershed American movie with few – if any direct – equals. The Blu-ray at long last gives us a comprehensive appreciation of the movie and the people who made it. This one is a no brainer. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)