Last night I was feeling so distraught about Criterion’s upcoming 1.85 fascist Bluray of Elia Kazan‘s On The Waterfront that I went on iTunes to buy the special edition 1.33 to 1 DVD version (the one that came out in 2001). So I bought it for $9.99 and…good God! It’s the 1.85 Bob Furmanek version!
It appears that Sony restoration honcho Grover Crisp and Sony Home Video are pre-emptively circulating the newbie in advance of the Criterion, perhaps to familiarize the public with a whacked-down Waterfront as a way of managing an end run around traditionalists like myself.
TCM has allegedly been screening the 1.85 version for several years but you know what I mean…the powers that be are trying to eliminate all traces of the good old boxy version. They can’t send out memory police to physically seize all existing copies of the 1.33 version so they’re focusing for now on iTunes. Pretty soon Crisp and Criterion and friends of Furmanek will be able to say “1.33 Waterfront…what’s that?”
I repeat: Crisp invited me to see the 1.33 version at a Sony screening room (I went with my son Dylan) sometime in the early aughts, and he was very proud and satisfied with it. But then Furmanek and the 1.85 fascists showed Crisp (or people close to Crisp) data about Columbia chief Harry Cohn mandating a 1.85 aspect ratio in all non-Scope Columbia films from April 1953 on, and Crisp capitulated.
But here’s the thing and I don’t mind admitting this, given my extreme distaste for the fascist mandate: director Elia Kazan shot his 1.85 version of On The Waterfront with skill and finesse and a nice sense of balance, and so it’s not that painful to watch. Most (roughly 80%) of the shots look “right” without a sense of vital or interesting information having been chopped out.
And yet (and this is IMPORTANT) the famous taxicab scene with Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger looks quite cramped and claustrophic; ditto that Hoboken bar scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint. The faces are there and you’re getting what you need to understand the story and appreciate the mood, but you’re not being shown what looks classic and true.
The 1.33 version of On The Waterfront will always look better. It breathes with smoky, smoggy air and all kinds of beautiful headroom, and it shows you more of the Hoboken world of 1953 and ’54 than the 1.85 version does. It looks like life as it was lived and felt and understood at that time, and the 1.85 version look like Furmanek and his pallies are doing a not-unpleasant science experiment.
In the highly unlikely event that Criterion decides to issue its On The Waterfront Bluray with both aspect ratios (1.85 and 1.33), I wouldn’t hesitate for a second in watching the 1.33 version every time.