Director Elia Kazan’s classic 1954 drama On The Waterfront tells the story of dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a once-promising boxer whose life is derailed when he gets mixed up with mobbed-up labor union honchos on the NYC waterfront. As you may have heard, Terry coulda been a contender. On The Waterfront is generally regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made and won eight Academy Awards in 1955, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Brando.

New to DVD and Blu-ray this week, the Criterion Collection reissue of On The Waterfront features a new digital restoration and alternate presentations in the full-screen (1.33:1) and wide-screen (1.85:1) aspect ratios. Also included in the package are various interviews and commentary tracks reprised from previous DVD iterations, plus additional critical essays, a new making-of documentary and recent interviews with Martin Scorsese and Brando’s co-star Eva Marie Saint.

Among the joys of digging into a reissue like this is gleaning insights from the bonus materials as to what makes a great movie work. To wit: The film’s script, we learn, was based on a series of investigative reports published in the New York Sun in 1949. In the postwar years, violent crime and corruption were running rampant among the docks and shipyards of New York City. Journalist Malcolm Johnson exposed the organized crime operation in a 24-part series called “Crime on the Waterfront,” and he remained obsessed with the situation for years.

And so many of the characters portrayed in the film — including Terry Malloy — were based on actual people. The essential outline of the story was based on actual events. At the time of its release, Waterfront floored audiences with its gritty realism. Kazan shot on location and used local waterfront tough guys in supporting roles. Meanwhile, Brando was inventing entire new techniques in film acting. As the bonus materials suggest, the authenticity of the story provided the necessary foundation for all this. Without Budd Schulberg’s sturdy script, Kazan and Brando would have had nothing to push against. Audiences used to studio confections and mannered film performances were seeing something brand new.

Watching Marlon Brando again, here in his prime, I marveled once more at the weird alchemy of movie stardom. Brando seems almost literally magnetic: You can’t take your eyes off him, his co-stars can’t take their eyes off him, and the camera seems in constant peril of gravitating right off the tripod and into that furrowed, knotted brow. It’s no exaggeration to say director Kazan and Brando changed filmmaking with On The Waterfront, and its great to have such a carefully assembled reissue on hand for revisiting the film.

Also New This Week:

One of last year’s best movies, Argo is a taut political thriller from director and star Ben Affleck concerning the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack includes some interesting behind-the-scenes features with details on the actual historical events. Highly recommended.

Winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, Undefeated profiles the remarkable turnaround of an underprivileged Tennessee high school football team.

Keira Knightley takes on the role of Anna Karenina in Leo Tolstoy’s classic Russian tale.

Ethan Hawke headlines the superior horror title Sinister, regarding the unexpected perils of watching old home movies.

Get your geek on with HBO’s swords-and-sorcery epic Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season, just in time for the Season Three premiere March 31.

Another one for the movie history buffs, the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks silent film epic The Thief of Bagdad has been reissued with digitally restored picture and musical score.

Plus: The Package, Fun Size, Atlas Shrugged: Part 2, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome and Swamp People: Season 3