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On the Waterfront

Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 103 mins . PG . PAL


What can I possibly say about On the Waterfront that hasn’t already been said? And by those far more eminently qualified than I? One of Hollywood’s most famous and influential films, winner of eight Academy Awards, and definitive showcase of The Method, Elia Kazan’s film is unanimously hailed as a masterpiece by critics the world over.

A morality play whose plot is loosely based on a true story, On the Waterfront is an American crime drama with Shakespearian undertones; the all-too-common story of endemic corruption and the ordinary men who, often unwillingly, are forced to fight it.

"I could’a been a contender. I could’a been somebody, instead of a bum -- which is what I am."

In his most memorable role (except possibly The Godfather), Marlon Brando plays an uneducated ex-boxer Terry Malloy whose brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right-hand-man of the local waterfront union boss and stand-over man Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). A long-time foot-soldier for Freindly's union, it is only after unwittingly luring a waterfront informant to his violent death that Terry’s conscience starts to prick and he begins to question his past loyalties. Smitten by the victim’s young sister - catholic college-girl Edie (Eva-Marie Saint) - Terry slowly begins to see his associates, and even his own brother, for what they really are. Indicted to appear before a grand jury on waterfront corruption, and with union pressure being brought to bare, Terry finally gives into his conscience, hardens his resolve and testifies against his former friends.

Made in 1954 after Kazan agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during America’s McCarthy years, On the Waterfront represented a direct and open response from Kazan to his many detractors. Thankfully, the film itself is remembered more for its gritty realism and ground-breaking performances than for the director’s own agenda.

Shot on location in the dead of a New York winter, and utilising real waterfront workers as extras, Kazan managed to instill this gritty realism into every single frame. A long-time exponent of The Method Kazan, with the help of his superb cast, was also able to breathe the same realism into the characters; bringing life to every gesture, subtlety into every syllable. Like no other film that came before, On the Waterfront marked the watershed of method acting in Hollywood, and has long since been its showcase.

Brando in particular delivers a subtle yet powerful performance in the lead role, delicately conveying the duality of Terry’s nature – his brash and violent exterior belies a gentle, almost childlike innocence. More inclined to hang out with his racing pigeons than with the violent associates of his brother, Terry is a gentle spirit who found himself on the wrong side of the tracks. The supporting cast is just as superb with Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger all giving celebrated performances.

Taking a step back, it might be easy to label On the Waterfront a little stale and formulaic by today’s standards. This due, not in small part, to the numerous references and blatent rehashing of its devices that has continued in Hollywood for the fifty odd years since its release. As it is so often the case, even the films that breathe fresh air into Hollywood end up being affected, in some small way, by the inevitable mediocrity of the genre that they spawn. But to label such as film as On the Waterfront so easily is to ignore the ingredients that make it truly great.


In terms of video, Columbia present On the Waterfront on a dual layer disc at its original aspect ratio of 4:3 (full frame), and with an image that displays all the hallmarks of a great black-and-white transfer. The high level of contrast that is maintained throughout the film, supported by perfect black level, results in an image that is nice and sharp, and that displays a great depth of detail, both in light and dark scenes. No MPEG artefacts have crept in, and the transfer retains its filmic look, (including a little film grain here and there). The layer change is perfectly placed at the end of a scene during a quiet fade to black.

As you might expect for a film pushing 50 years old, film artefacts (mainly specks) crop up from time to time, but on the whole they are small and relatively infrequent. On the whole, the source material is a remarkably clean for it’s age, and these artefacts never become distracting.

All in all, this is a great job from Columbia that will provide a good reference version of On the Waterfront for years to come.


In terms of audio, we are provided with Dolby Digital (mono) soundtracks in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. Thankfully there are no dropouts, pops or clicks to be heard and, for the most part, the dialogue is clear and distinct. The exceptions are the few occasions here Brando’s method-mumbling descends into the unintelligible.

All in all, as you might expect this is a soundtrack that is showing its age, but most importantly, the soundtrack provided by Columbia seems to be a faithful reproduction of the original source material.


Released as part of Columbia Tristar’s Academy Award Winners Collection, we are treated to animated (full frame) menus and a selection of extras that would ordinarily earn the mantle of ‘Special Edition’. Although the majority of the extra material is retrospective, it still represents an interesting companion to the film, providing a wealth of information for all us armchair critics.

  • Feature Commentary: by film critic Richard Schickel and Kazan biographer Jeff Young in which the two fight to talk over each other, such is their passion for the film. They touch on the themes of the film, the life of and experiences of Kazan, the New York and New Jersey waterfront locations, and the performances of the talented cast. Subtitles in Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian and German are provided.

  • Elia Kazan Interview: (12mins) in which he discusses the genesis of the film, and aspects of its production. Very interesting accompaniment to the film, and the closest we’ll get to a director’s commentary. Subtitles in Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian and German are provided.

  • Featurette: Contender Mastering the Method (25mins) provides an in-depth critique of the film’s pivotal and most famous scene – Brando and Steiger’s "I could’a been a contender" scene that takes place in the back of a New York taxi. Steiger discusses the approach taken to the scene by both himself and Brando (Steiger explains he was basically shit-scared), and provided insight into the improvised elements of the performance and the ever present Method. Critics also gather to espouse and re-espouse their appraisal of the scene ad-nauseum. Subtitles in Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian and German are provided.

  • Photo Gallery: An animated montage of 26 production stills and one movie poster, with appropriate snippets of the dialogue from the soundtrack acting as accompaniment. A quite effective way to present this kind of material.

  • Filmographies: for director Elia Kazan, writer Budd Schulberg, and cast members Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint.

  • Trailer: From Here To Eternity: black-and-white, grainy and flecked with film artefacts. Presented in full-frame and consisting almost entirely of the famous Rolling around in the surf scene.

  • Trailer: Picnic a clean, sharp transfer, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1).

  • Theatrical Trailer: presented in full-frame (naturally) and much dirty and grainier than the feature itself.

  • Collector’s Booklet A ten page booklet that provides a one page blurb on each of the titles in Columbia Tristar’s Academy Award Winner’s Collection. The blurbs are penned by none other than Bill Collins, and on this strength alone I refused to read them.


On the Waterfront is one of Hollywood's true classics and a film that everyone with even the slightest interest in cinema should see (and judge) at least once in their lives. Columbia Tristar's feature-packed disc provides the perfect oportunity to go out and rent it (if you haven't seen it already), or for those fans out there to finally own it. This is definately a disc that does justice to this fine piece of cinema history.

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      And I quote...
    "Brando's most celebrated performance, ... everyone with even the slightest interest in cinema should see On the Waterfront at least once in their lives."
    - Gavin Turner
      Review Equipment
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    • TV:
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    • Receiver:
          Yamaha RX-V795
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    • Speakers:
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    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
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