On the Waterfront isn’t Elia Kazan’s best film. I’ll get crucified for admitting that opinion, I know, but compare this effort to Kazan’s next feature, James Dean’s East of Eden, and the uneven performances of Waterfront start to become a little more distracting.
But only a little. On the balance sheet, On the Waterfront is a powerful and at times shocking work that, while a product of its time—as any good work of art is—remains vibrant and accessible today. Only Leonard Bernstein’s score, which is often heralded as a masterwork but in truth runs a bit too maudlin and sappy in some of the film’s most poignant scenes, really anchors the film in the past. But that was true when it was released in 1954. Simply put, the score is too often a throwback to the melodramatic orchestrations of the late 1930s, and while I love it as a work in and of itself, sometimes it just conflicts too much with the imagery to which it’s attached. (Incidentally, this is another thing that makes East of Eden work better overall. In the year between, Kazan seemed to have learned when to leave music on the cutting-room floor.)
If all of the above sounds overly critical, it isn’t intended to be. I absolutely adore this Marlon Brando vehicle, warts and all. In fact, I may love it all the more for its flaws, since the film is ultimately about flawed humans. It’s also a film about honesty and fairness, themes that also ring through in its presentation, especially in Brando’s intense portrayal of former boxer Terry Malloy, who testifies against a mobbed-up union boss at great personal cost.
It’s a film that I return to frequently, but what drew me in for my most recent viewing is Kaleidescape’s Ultra HD presentation. Unsurprisingly, On the Waterfront only seems to be making the jump from high-def to 4K purely in the digital domain (maybe because the Criterion Collection hasn’t kept up with modern AV standards), which means Kaleidescape is the film’s only opportunity, for now, to shine in all its high-
bandwidth 4K glory. Frankly, it’s such a grainy and gritty film that I’m skeptical as to whether or not streaming could do it justice without becoming too noisy—even with high-quality streaming formats like Vudu, which often excel with the hyper-slick, digitally assembled output of today’s Hollywood but struggle with the organic nature of old celluloid stock.
At any rate, it takes but a few moments of comparison between the Kaleidescape 4K download and the excellent Criterion Blu-ray release from 2013 to see what a difference UHD makes. In the famous “I coulda been a contender!” scene in particular, the 4K really brings out the subtlest, but most important of details, like the sheen of sweat on Rod Steiger’s face, as well as Brando’s, as the scene ramps up in intensity. It’s true, the 4K resolution also brings with it an enhancement of the film’s prominent grain (which was overly sanitized in the streaming version presented on the now-defunct Filmstruck streaming service), but that’s part of Waterfront’s visual charm, and it’s nice to see it maintained here.
Speaking of the visuals, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release was noteworthy for its inclusion of three versions of the film, all identical in terms of content, but differing in their aspect ratio. On the Waterfront was shot at a time when movie theaters were transitioning from 1.33:1 (the shape of your old standard-definition CRT TV) to wider aspect ratios like 1.85:1 (similar to
the shape of your new UHD TV). As such, director of photography Boris Kaufman shot the film so it would work on screens of either shape. But he chose to compose the action for the less-common 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray release included all three compositions: 1.66:1 on one disc, and 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 on another.
The Kaleidescape download is solely 1.66:1, and if a choice had to be made to include only one version of the film, this was the right call. The
tighter framing enhances the intimacy—and indeed the intensity—of the film, without cutting out key visual details, and the black bars along the left and right of the image are so slight you’ll forget they’re there within minutes.
Unfortunately, you’ll still need to download the film twice if you want to see the included bonus features—a short documentary, an interview with Elia Kazan, and a photo gallery—since these are available only with the DVD-quality download. Honestly, though, you’re probably better off skipping these and saving space on your hard drive. Most of the compelling bonus features for the film remain with the Criterion Collection, including the excellent audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, as well as a number of wonderful interviews.
The goods news is, you don’t even really need those, either. On the Waterfront stands on its own two legs, and forced to choose between the superior presentation on Kaleidescape and the superior historical perspective afforded by the Criterion release, I would opt for the former any day.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.