There is something universal about standing up for what’s right even when it goes against popular opinion. Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront tells the story of one man who goes against the crowd for no gain other than his own personal pride. Now available as a three-disc DVD set from The Criterion Collection, the film seems just as relevant today as it did when it was released nearly 60 years ago. Featuring great performances from its star Marlon Brando, along with co-stars Rod Steiger and Eva Maria Saint, On the Waterfront captures the spirit of what fighting for something you believe in really means.
Brando plays Terry Malloy, a dock worker who is content to shuffle through his daily life without a lot of ambition or thought. At one point in time he had been a promising boxer, but his career was shattered when he took a dive for the local crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Malloy’s brother Charley (Steiger), Friendly’s right hand man, coerced Malloy to throw the fight so Friendly could bet against him. Malloy is a likeable guy. He seems easygoing and, unlike his mafia friends, he doesn’t seem to want to intentionally pick a fight. He even cares for some pigeons in a coop he keeps on the rooftop of his apartment building.
His life is turned around when he unwittingly takes part in the murder of fellow dock worker Joey Doyle (Ben Wagner). Doyle had planned to testify against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Friendly controls everything along the waterfront and he doesn’t want anything to get in his way. Though wracked with guilt over the murder, Malloy keeps quiet until he falls for Doyle’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint). He’s filled with conflict over whether he should tell Edie the truth about his role in her brother’s death and if he should go up against Friendly.
There are a lot of themes in On the Waterfront, but one of the most compelling is Malloy’s self-discovery. It’s not hard to relate to the idea of going through life by taking the easiest path. It’s easier to turn a blind eye to things when confronting them head-on could mean losing everything. But what does that mean for one’s own self-worth? As Malloy tells his brother in the famous monologue from the film, he “could have been a contender,” but he isn’t. Because of his shame over throwing the fight he has given up on himself completely. He lets his brother do his thinking. He no longer trusts himself to make good decisions. So when he is confronted with a gross injustice, can he rise above his own self doubt and do what is right?
The film does a great job of exploring that inner struggle. It is also a great depiction of how easy it is for people to go along with the crowd. It doesn’t make sense why no one stands up to Friendly. Why should one man have so much power over a large group? It doesn’t make sense, yet there are many examples of it throughout history. On the Waterfront serves as a very relatable depiction of this scenario.
The DVD set includes the film three times, one on each disc, all in different aspect ratios: 1.66:1, 1.85:1, and 1.33:1. The reasons for this are outlined in the booklet and the featurette “On the Aspect Ratio” included with the special features. At the time of the film’s release, the studio was making a transition to widescreen (1.85:1) for all of its films including On the Waterfront. The featurette provides some interesting background on why the other aspect ratios were used for theatrical exhibition. There has been a lot of debate over which format was actually intended for this film, however for this release the default is 1.66:1 on disc one.
The set is packed with special features that provide insights about the making of the film, along with its impact on other filmmakers and audiences. Among them is a newly produced documentary on the making of the film, a new interview with Eva Marie Saint, and a 2001 interview with director Elia Kazan. There’s also an 18-minute piece featuring director Martin Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones discussing the film and some of the controversy surrounding it. We also get the 1982 documentary Elia Kazan: An Outsider, which features conversations between the director and French film critic Michel Ciment. A commentary track with film critic Richard Schickel and Kazan biographer Jeff Young is carried over from a 2005 DVD release. The included booklet includes several essays on the significance of the film.
Overall this is a comprehensive package for a classic film. On the Waterfront is a dark look at what can happen if power goes unchecked. It is also a fascinating portrayal of human nature and courage. The brilliant performance of Marlon Brando alone makes this a film worthy of its place in history.