THE DVD SHELF: Blu-rays of Oscar Winners "Grand Hotel," "Mrs. Miniver," "Driving Miss Daisy," "On the Waterfront"

By Steven Suskin
10 Feb 2013

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Our Academy Award-winning quartet is rounded out by one of Hollywood's most strikingly provocative films. Elia Kazan's 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront [Criterion] coulda been a contender, shoulda been a contender, and was a contender — taking a total of eight Oscars (and only the third film to do so, although the record has since been surpassed). "Waterfront" is riveting on many levels. The story of waterfront corruption in New York Harbor was ripped from the headlines; the plot was based on Malcolm Johnson's series of articles in the New York Sun, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. That year's Drama winner had been Arthur Miller for Death of a Salesman, directed by Kazan and starring Lee J. Cobb (who co-starred in "On the Waterfront").

In between, the former-communist Kazan had made riveting headlines of his own by naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This turned him into a pariah in many circles, although it didn't prevent him from continuing to make great movies. But former colleagues saw him as a stool pigeon — and that is precisely what "On the Waterfront" is about. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a well-connected dockworker who unquestioningly takes orders from union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb), falls in love with local girl Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Her brother is murdered before being able to testify against Friendly before the Waterfront Crime Commission. When Terry shows signs of cooperating with crusading waterfront priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), Terry's brother Charley (Rod Steiger) — Friendly's top lieutenant — tries to protect him; he ends up dead, too. Terry ultimately testifies, is brutally beaten, but rallies in one of the cinema's all-time great scenes.

To say that Brando, Malden, Cobb and Steiger are phenomenal in these roles is to state the obvious. Breathtakingly good, all of them. (In one of those cruel twists of Oscar fate, Malden, Cobb and Steiger received featured actor nominations against each other, allowing a lesser actor in a lesser film to sneak in and take the prize.) Saint matches them, in her film debut; she won the Featured Actress award, while Brando took Best Actor.

Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg won awards as well; it was an "On the Waterfront" juggernaut that year. The main loser among the production staff was composer Leonard Bernstein. Loser of the Oscar, that is; his score for "Waterfront" is one of Hollywood's best, and Bernstein fans who don't know this music should stop what they are doing right now and order a recording of his "Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront" (which can be found on the Naxos collection "Chichester Psalms" among other CDs). The score can be seen as Bernstein's critical step toward West Side Story in 1957.



But the score is only one of the elements. Everything — and every major participant — is at their best in "On the Waterfront." A true classic, with the Oscar-winning cinematography (by Boris Kaufman), art direction (by Richard Day) and editing (by Gene Milford) enhanced by Criterion's new Blu-ray restoration. The two-disc set is packed with special features, with previously available bonuses mixed with a handful of new interviews (with Eva Marie Saint, Martin Scorsese and others) plus a new documentary on the making of the film. Criterion also gives us a fascinating booklet including one of the original Malcolm Johnson articles from the Sun; a piece by Schulberg; and Kazan's defiant defense of his testimony before the HUAC, which he ran as a paid advertisement the next day in the New York Times.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)