Collecting Criterion – On the Waterfront (1954)

We are going through a moment here in America where Labor rights have come back to the forefront.  And nowhere is that more apparent than in Hollywood right now.  The Writer’s strike has now entered it’s fourth month, making it the longest labor stoppage in the industry’s history.  The Actor’s strike is not that far behind, now entering it’s third month.  The rights of workers has always been an important issue for most of the creatives within Hollywood, and of course it’s been reflected within the art of cinema.  You can find movies making the call for unionization as far back in Hollywood to classics like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), to more films like Norma Rae (1979), 9 to 5 (1980), and even the Disney musical Newsies (1992).  Pro-labor films more often than not are ideal underdog movies that appeal to the mass audience, many of whom would no doubt identify with the heroes of the story as they take on the fat cats representing Capitalism gone too far.  The Criterion Collection has naturally spotlighted some important films that have stood out over the years as some of the most profound pro-labor movies ever to make it to the silver screen.  There’s the aforementioned Modern Times (Spine #543), which is significant given Chaplin’s involvement in creating the first labor unions in Hollywood during the Depression years.  There’s also John Sayles’ Matewan (1987, #999) which chronicles a coal mining town coming together to form a union.  The Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA (1976, #334) which was an unflinching in the thick of it account of a tumultuous coal miners strike in Appalachian Kentucky is also in the Collection.  And more recently, the collection added Martin Scorsese’s sprawling crime epic The Irishman (2019, #1058),  which centered around notorious union chief Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino.  And while most of the films that Criterion has chosen to be a part of their collection take a firm pro-union stance, they also included a film that runs contrary to the messaging of those films, and surprisingly, it too is deserving of inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

On the Waterfront (1954, #647) is a paradox of a film.  On one hand, it is an apologia for anti-union activities that over time feels highly contrarian and indulgent.  And on the other hand, it is also one of the greatest films ever made.  There is some context that needs to be understood regarding the movie.  The film’s director Elia Kazan was one of the hottest names in Hollywood in the post-War years.  Having made a name for himself on Broadway, Kazan effortlessly transitioned into Hollywood, becoming especially valuable in directing a new type of acting style that was starting to emerge which was method acting.  Where some filmmakers struggled with the new method style and it’s sometimes temperamental performers, he exceled.  He immediately hit it strong with the Oscar-winning Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which garnered him his first Best Director honor.  He followed that up with a screen adaptation of a Broadway play he had staged earlier called A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which is where he and actor Marlon Brando first crossed paths.  During this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a government led witch hunt to weed out all suspected communists in America was in full swing.  Hollywood, with it’s strong history of pro-labor sentiment, was naturally targeted by the Committee and many within Hollywood were called to Washington to name names.  Kazan, a lifelong liberal, was initially critical of the Committee’s overreach, but when the threat of blacklisting started to come his way, Kazan shockingly ended naming names.  Friends and colleagues felt betrayed by Kazan, and though he escaped the blacklist which destroyed the livelihood of countless professionals in Hollywood, it came at a steep cost to his reputation.  Still, he defiantly tried to explain why he did what he did, and he channeled that passion all into a film that over time has been considered his masterpiece.  On the Waterfront’s  origins may be controversial, but there is no denying that it is a master work of cinema from one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers.

The movie tells the story of a former prizefighter turned longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando).  Malloy also has been running errands for the union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a man suspected of mob ties who has been using his position as a shield for illegal activity.  One night, Malloy witnesses a murder believed to have been orchestrated by Friendly’s thugs.  Terry minds his own business like all the other workers under Friendly’s thumb, but things change when Terry meets the sister of the slain man, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint).  The two strike up a courtship, which in turn makes Terry feel guilt over not standing up for men like her brother.  A wedge begins to grow between Terry and Friendly, and the boss man tries to get Terry back in line by making casual threats.  Meanwhile, a strong critic of Friendly’s corruption, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to appeal to Malloy’s growing dissatisfaction with the union leadership, and asks Terry to help him by providing information to the courts that could finally hold Friendly and his men accountable.  Friendly ratchets up the heat on Terry by even send his associate Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry’s own brother, to make the final threat to him.  But, Terry eventually breaks and delivers his testimony to the courts, implicating Johnny Friendly to a number of crimes.  While Terry may have alleviated his conscience and done the right thing in the end, the testimony he gave ends up ostracizing him amongst his fellow longshoremen, who all begin calling him a “stool pigeon” for speaking out.  Despite being left abandoned by his fellow workers, all of whom still fall in line behind Friendly despite knowing about his criminal activity, Terry defiantly tells the union boss that he’s proud of what he did, because Friendly is corrupt and needed to be held accountable, stating no man should be above the law.  After being roughed up one more time by Friendly’s thugs, Malloy still finds the strength to stagger up to the docks seeking work, showing that his will is still not broken, and soon all the other workers begin following him in to, showing that in the end, it’s he who the workers respect more and not the corrupt boss that they’ve been too afraid to challenge before.

It’s clear to anyone familiar with Kazan’s history that Terry Malloy is a self-insert character for the director.  Kazan believed at the time that naming names at the HUAC hearings was the right thing to do, and he is using the narrative here to justify what he did.  It’s the only thing about the movie that over time hasn’t aged well, since the HUAC hearings and the McCarthy trials that followed after it are seen today as a black mark in American history.  Thousands of performers and filmmakers lost their careers because of the Black List, including many who were never able to make it back once the blacklisting ended in the 1960’s, and all because they were suspected of being something that many of them weren’t.  Their only crimes were not cooperating with the farcical witch hunt and refusing to expose their friends and colleagues.  Apart from that aspect of the movie, everything else about On the Waterfront is a master class in filmmaking.  The atmosphere of the film is particularly striking, with Kazan really doing an amazing job of presenting the gritty world that these characters inhabit.  There’s this overall lack of artificiality throughout the whole movie, as the world feels completely lived in.  The authenticity largely comes from the film’s use of actual locations as opposed to studio sets.  Most of the movie was shot in and around Hoboken, NJ at the real dock yards.  Most of the extras in the film are real longshoreman, which adds even more to the level of authenticity.  Kazan even required his actors to wear little to no make-up and wear off the rack clothes instead of being dressed by the studio wardrobe department, helping to strip artificiality even more.  All of this comes across beautifully in Boris Kaufman’s striking black and white cinematography.  Despite what Elia Kazan’s intentions were with making this movie, there is no doubt that he poured all of his artistry and talent into this film, and the end result is a film that certainly stands the test of time visually and narratively.

One of the things that really makes the movie soar is the incredibly humane story at it’s core.  Budd Schulberg’s screenplay matches the grit of Elia Kazan’s direction perfectly, creating characters that have rich histories and personality.  It’s that richness of character that really helps to make viewers forget the real life associations that precede the film.  In particular, the movie creates a compelling protagonist in Terry Malloy, a down on his luck “joe schmo” who has this one opportunity to do something right in his life.  Initially, Marlon Brando refused to be a part of this film since he felt betrayed by his former friend Elia Kazan after his “friendly witness” testimony to HUAC.  But, when Brando learned of other actors being considered for the role like Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and then newcomer Paul Newman, Brando begrudgingly said yes to the role, with conditions of course.  Kazan was glad to accommodate, because he only ever saw Brando in the role, and it’s fortunate for everyone that Marlon said yes.  This is easily one of Brando’s greatest performances, matched possibly only by his other iconic work in The Godfather (1972).  He just embodies this character heart and soul, and you find yourself easily captivated by him on screen.  He’s also backed up magnificently by a legendary supporting cast, with Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb all giving magnificent performances.  Of course, one particular stand out is Rod Steiger as Charley Malloy.  The scene in the back seat of the taxi cab with Brando and Steiger is one of cinema’s most iconic moments, and both actors play the moment perfectly.  It was also one of the most difficult scenes to shoot as well, as the two “alpha dog” actors notoriously hated each other and refused to share the set most of the time.  Kazan was able to get just enough shots of the two of them on screen together in the end, with their close-ups all shot separately alone.  You would never know the difference as it is a seamless edit, and the scene is one of the most often imitated in movie history, especially with Brando’s iconic line, “I coulda been a contender.”   Kazan was often known to be an actor’s director, and this movie is a wonderful example of getting the best out of his performers.

The Criterion Collection naturally put a lot of effort into preserving this classic Hollywood masterpiece.  For the blu-ray release, the film received a brand new 4K transfer scanned from the original camera negative.  On the Waterfront, since it’s release, has always been considered an important film, and it’s studio Columbia Pictures has long kept the camera negative well preserved.  Even still, extensive restoration work was done to clean up the original elements and clear out all the scratches and conduct an accurate color correction on the black and white palette.  What is interesting about the restoration for this Criterion release is that the movie doesn’t just restore one version of the movie, but it in fact a restoration of three versions.  The movie’s original release came at a transitionary time in Hollywood, as widescreen filmmaking was beginning to take hold.  Fox’s The Robe (1953) had popularized the widescreen process a year prior, but it was too late to make the same adjustment for On the Waterfront.  Cinematographer managed to find a compromise by filming the movie in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  This enabled the film to retain it’s necessary framing for the new widescreen theater screens at a ratio of 1.85:1, while also being compatible for theaters not equipped for widescreen at the previous standard full frame of 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  While the wider version is the one that played in theaters for many years, the full frame version has been the one that more people have seen on home video releases, as it matched the old television aspect ratio of 4:3.  Criterion has now finally given us the chance to see Kazan and Kaufman’s original 1.66:1 version for the first time on home video, but the other two versions are also included, making this the most complete presentation that this movie has ever received on home video.  The restoration is quite remarkable, bringing out the beautiful authentic detail in every frame of the movie.  The blu-ray also features a restored presentation of the movie’s original mono soundtrack, though an alternate 5.1 mix is included as well.  Given that Criterion went above and beyond in giving us all the different versions of this movie in one set is another reminder of just how great Criterion is at giving movie collectors the best of all worlds.

Most of the blu-ray’s bonus features accompany the 1.66:1 version of the film, with a second disc devoted entirely to the other two versions.  The primary feature is a feature audio commentary by film scholars Richard Schickel and Jeff Young.  Together, the two authors break down the film’s history and themes, share behind the scenes tidbits, and present a very scholarly breakdown of the movie that tells you everything you need to know about the film.  There is couple of new interviews conducted just for this Criterion release.  One is a conversation between director Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones, both long time fans of this film and the discussion talks a lot about the influence this movie has had on them and many other filmmakers over the years.  There’s also a new interview with actress Eva Marie Saint, who as of writing is the last living member of the cast.  There’s also a brand new documentary detailing the making of the film, with new interviews with scholars like Leo Braudy and David Thomson.  Some legacy features are also included, including a feature length documentary called Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982) about the director, as well as a documentary called Contender: Mastering the Method (2001), which is about the famous taxi scene.  There’s also an enlightening archival interview from 2001 with Elia Kazan himself.  There are also a handful of video essays about the real life locations and people used in the film, another about the iconic musical score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, and another about the different aspect ratios and the effort to restore them.  Lastly, there is the film’s original theatrical trailer.  There is a wealth of content included in this Criterion release, including a healthy amount of new material.  The aspect ratio essay is fascinating for people like me interested in the history of widescreen formats in film.  There’s also a great amount of material devoted to the film’s historical context, particularly with regards to the director.  It’s a definite must have for fans of the film, as it really covers all the bases, and anyone coming to the film for the first time will get everything they need to understand everything about the movie.

Elia Kazan would continue to have a modestly successful career after On the Waterfront, directing movies like East of Eden (1955) and America, America (1963) in the years that followed.  But there is no doubt that On the Waterfront was the peak of his career.  The film would go on to win an impressive 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Kazan’s second directing honor, a first Oscar win for Brando for Best Actor (the only one he accepted), and a Supporting Actress win for Eva Marie Saint.  In the years that followed, however, Kazan couldn’t shake the cost of what he had done even with his statement in On the Waterfront.  His attempt to compare himself to defiant bravery of Terry Malloy seems selfish in hindsight.  Malloy was standing up to bullies in order to expose deep seeded corruption that was crippling the labor movement in America.  But in reality, Kazan was the one who gave into the bullies and helped to prop up corruption in the American government.  Over the years, this specter of selfishness followed Kazan to his last days.  When the Academy Awards gave him an honorary award in 2002, it was a controversial moment.  Half of the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation, while the other half sat on their hands and spoke loudly with their silence.  Not all wounds were healed it seemed.  Still, it is undeniable that Kazan was a master filmmaker and On the Waterfront is an undeniably great film on every level.  Divorced from it’s history, the movie is a great underdog story of overcoming your personal demons to stand for something good.  It can even be interpreted as being pro-labor in the end, as the longshoremen in the finale do fall in line behind the purer Terry Malloy rather than the corrupt Johnny Friendly, showing the importance of solidarity.  In the end, workers rights is dependent on being a united front for the benefit of all union members rather than a generator for one person’s self-interest.  Regardless of what you think about the movie’s message, On the Waterfront is filmmaking at it’s finest, and a worthy inclusion into the Criterion Collection.  In the grand history of cinema, it is undeniably a contender.