Edge of The City (1957)

Edge of The City boasts a self-important opening, with a raging score and noirish mood-lightning, especially considering all it shows is John Cassavetes going into work. Even if it is all mood, there’s arguably no better conduit for the time being than Cassavettes. This was a few years before his directorial career kicked off in earnest with Shadows, but it’s as if he oozes unease and discontentment.

He’s not in the same vein as Brando or Clift; each man deservedly stands on his own and Cassavetes was no fan of “The Method,” but he had an innate capacity to present characters with emotions incarnate, whether through the most tangible of fears or tormenting, ever-volatile demons.

He too was totally engaged with the act of crafting characters. He seems to give himself over to them, and thus, later on, behind the camera he offered his fellow actors so much freedom. I imagine it’s both terrifying and invigorating being in Cassavetes’s care, like a thrilling tightrope walk in the best of hands.

For now, he’s in the studio system, but he gets to team with people who arguably appreciated the craft as much as him in a scenario that relies on its main trifecta to create a substantive storyline. At the very least, we’re in for some fine character moments.

Axel North (Cassavetes) finds himself knee-deep in the life of docks where longshoremen make a hard day’s wage with their hands and the sweat of their brows. He gets a gig when a gruff stranger (Jack Warden) vouches for him after he mentions a mutual acquaintance. However, this is hardly an act of pure altruism. He’s a shrewd customer and looks to skim off the top of the newcomer’s pay.

In fact, the most noirish aspect aside from the New York stockyards is a veiled past that doesn’t have the decency to leave him be. Because an itinerant like Axel has to be running away from something; he can’t afford to complain. If Charlie is a symbol of the biting survival-of-the-fittest mentality on the docks, then Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) is the friend you’re always looking to have in your corner.

Poitier’s blessed with a sharp wit in the role, and he feels like the comeback kid, always bright-eyed and ready with the retort. But it also always comes out of a place of camaraderie. He takes Axel under his wing. No matter his color or creed, Tommy knows this world far better than his new buddy. As he maps out the social order, there are the bigs and the lower forms (and probably more than a few loners).

Somehow Cassavetes comes off almost boyish and demure in his first starring role, more so than I’ve ever seen him. It just goes that his normal picture of pent-up intensity took on many forms over the course of his career.

In his film directorial debut, Martin Ritt introduces the kind of themes that would stick with him for the rest of his career. He was passionate about honest character studies focused on people with convictions and conflicts — some good and some bad. How do you begin to categorize Hud, Tommy, or Norma Rae? The catch-all answer is their joint humanity, tainted or not. There’s an inner truth to them imbued by the performers.

In some ways, Edge of The City feels more unprecedented and significant than Stanley Kramer’s Defiant Ones for the sole reason that it’s far more mundane. Its interracial friendship is formed not over an arduous, embittered game of survival, but in the salt mines and urban jungle of the common working man. Axel and Tommy live life together. It normalizes them.

Because one of the greatest joys of the movie comes with depicting the daily activities occurring outside the typical 9 to 5 grind. There are playgrounds overrun with kids, and apartments filled up with mundane rhythms, from cooking dinner to conversations with spouses and friends.

What’s more, the primary female characters as portrayed by Ruby Dee and Kathleen Maguire are intelligent, well-informed human beings. Tommy and Lucy are happily married, and they set Axel up with their friend Ellen, spending evenings together going dancing or bowling. It injects an air of levity onto an otherwise dour canvas.

Still, there are tough conversations too after the laughs have subsided. We hardly expect space for this kind of pragmatic discourse, especially in 1957, and yet here we are. The most noteworthy thing to come out of the inevitable devastation is Ruby Dee’s final stand. For much of the movie, she plays the affectionate wife, who nevertheless has thoughts and opinions of her own. In one shining moment, she showcases her resolute strength even as she decries the madness around her.

It calls for some outward response breaking the code of the docks for the sake of compassion and vindication in the face of heartless human tragedy. Because Martin Ritt studied under Elia Kazan, this might as well be his version of On The Waterfront. It evolves into a tale of collective responsibility where inaction is one of the worst forms of culpability (and also one of the easiest to fall prey to).

In the final hours, Cassavetes becomes his version of Brando’s Terry Malloy and Warden fills in for his 12 Angry Men castmate Lee J. Cobb. Here battles, if not fought with baling hooks, are settled with fists. Finally, Axel casts off his fear and his apathy to stand for something meaningful. So while this is not a wholly original sequence, at the very least, it’s ingraned with a level of moral resonance.

With the birth of the black power movement and blaxploitation in the ensuing decades, Sidney Poitier did not just go out of fashion, he became an easy target. He was a sellout and a relic from a bygone age. It seems time has proved just how uncharitable this is especially when you have the misfortune of becoming acquainted with the likes of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best.

Sidney Poitier is an inimitable trailblazer, and it’s sorely unfair to place the onus of black representation on one man. Thankfully, he’s had a few others to carry the mantle though progress has been incremental at best. Hopefully, his heirs will keep coming thick and fast, articulating the vast, complex circumferences of the black experience.

However, my final thought is only this. All I could think about after the movie was how he single-handedly built a sub-genre: the interracial buddy film. He could count the likes of John Cassavetes and Tony Curtis among his onscreen friends. Not many men can say that.

3.5/5 Stars

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

The Verdict (1982)

Verdict1Paul Newman is one of those people who bring other people into theaters. They’ll watch him on reruns when they’re surfing through the channels or tell their children and grandchildren about him. That’s just it. He’s a universal actor who transcends the years with his magnetism and charisma. A lot of folks would follow him to the ends of the earth cinematically-speaking, and he plays the bums and ne’er do wells like nobody else.

In some ways, it seems like he should have no place in the film like The Verdict. It’s a slow, brooding drama that churns and grinds methodically through a script courtesy of David Mamet, adapted from Barry Reed’s novel. It’s completely void of humor or charm in many respects. It’s bitter and battered, personified by Frank Galvin, a washed-up lawyer drowning in booze and drifting in a fog of cigarette smoke. His pedigree isn’t so hot either. In the last three years, he’s had four cases and has not won a single one. To make matters worse, he’s an ambulance chaser, the type of prosecutor that every self-respecting citizen would scoff at with contempt.

The film generally lacks polish or pizzazz for that matter, but Paul Newman and director Sidney Lumet are well-established professionals, who know how to develop the courtroom drama in such a way that it remains compelling. All the necessary bits and pieces are there to go along with generally stark and somber visuals.

James Mason is the opposition, a white-haired man with a penchant for winning and doing his homework so that all the holes are stopped up. He’s representing not only two renowned doctors but also the Archdiocese of Boston since they own St. Catherine’s hospital. Galvin’s mentor and colleague is Mickey (Jack Warden), who watches out for him despite his many failings. Being divorced, Frank also tries to find companionship with the aloof beauty Laura (Charlotte Rampling).

Galvin is tempted by a giant settlement, but there’s something inside of himself that says, take the case to trial. Of course, right from the beginning, it’s a train wreck, because he cannot find the witnesses he needs, and Ed Concannon is a real pro with an extensive legal team to do his bidding. On the other side of the room, you only have Frank and Mickey.

They’re able to dig up key witness Kaitlin Costello, although Concannon turns that against them as well. Furthermore, Frank learns something about Laura that doesn’t help. And there we are at the end of the case, a gray-haired lawyer sitting there seemingly defeated. But he does the only thing he can do, in all sincerity plead with the members of the jury to do what is right and just. That is all he can do.

Some might find comparisons to The Verdict in Lumet’s earlier masterpiece 12 Angry Men, including the casting of Jack Warden and Edward Binns. However, I think what makes the director’s courtroom dramas work so well is that they really don’t dwell too much on the actual courtroom. 12 Angry Men is about the discussion going on behind closed doors and The Verdict concerns itself with all that is going on outside in preparation. We see Frank for who he is in the office and out of it. Thus, by the time we actually get into that court of law there’s so much more riding on this verdict.

What’s especially striking about Newman’s performance is that there is almost a complete absence of drama. There is one violent outburst and aside from that, it’s as if he’s utterly fed up with the world. Throwing his hands up in a sense and giving in. Instead, he plays pinball or sits pensively with a drink in hand. That’s why this case is so important because it means something. It signifies an attempt to care again about right and wrong. But the question is, Does anything actually change in the character of Frank Galvin? We leave him sulking in his office, slowly nursing yet another drink as the phone rings out in the silence. What’s the verdict then? Is he a winner or a loser? I’m not sure he even knows the answer to that question.

4/5 Stars

Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

ebd81-12angrymen1With a title like 12 Angry Men you might come away with the false idea that all the characters in this film are the same, emotionally and otherwise. That is far from the truth. The reason a film like this stands up even today is because the fellows who sit down around that table are everymen that each and every one of us can relate to in some way. Yes, they are all male and all white, but they reflect little bits of us and our own humanity.

But getting down to the specifics, what is 12 Angry Men really and truly about? If you want to break it down, all it boils down to is 12 men gathering in a room to talk out a murder case. It sounds pretty dull and it had the potential to be so. In fact, calling it a courtroom drama is partially a misnomer because we hardly spend five minutes there before the jury is deliberating. We see the members of the jury, hear the final statement of the judge, and get a last look at the young defendant.

What comes next is the beginning of the decision-making process and seeing as it looks like an open and shut case, an initial vote is called for. If everyone agrees, this boy will be sent to the electric chair for killing his father. The vote is taken and it is 11 to 1 with one man holding out. Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda), an architect, cannot bring himself to send the boy off without talking some more and so, begrudgingly, they do talk.

That is where the true heart of this film comes out, through the discussion and back and forth of the characters. They get around to evidence like the switchblade which the boy supposedly dropped. There were two witnesses: One being an old man living downstairs and the other a middle-aged woman who lived across the train tracks. Then, there is the business about the boy’s flimsy alibi about going to the movies. All are hotly debated and quarreled over.

It just happens to be the hottest day of the year and about an hour in it starts pouring cats and dogs. Tempers reach their apex, feelings are hurt, and major prejudices are revealed. The beauty of this film is not simply the sentiment that the jury switches its decision. The beauty truly comes from this wonderfully colorful ensemble of actors under the direction of Sidney Lumet in a confined space. But before mentioning the direction it is important to acknowledge the players because they are the heart and soul of this story.

Juror # 1: (Martin Balsam) He is the foreman who moderates, and he tries to keep the discussion civil with a relatively calm demeanor. All we know about him is that he is an assistant coach for a high school football team.

Juror # 2: (John Fielder) He is one of the younger members of the jury and a quiet individual with a timid voice. He is a banker.

Juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) The main driving force of conflict, he holds out when everyone else switches their vote. He is a businessman who also has familial issues with his son that come into play.

Juror # 4 (E.G. Marshall) A rational and measured broker, he holds that the boy is guilty until some facts are laid out that make him think otherwise.

Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) A meek man and Baltimore baseball fan who also has a fiery side as well. It comes out that he grew up in the slums when he was a kid.

Juror # 6 (Edward Binns) A straightforward and kindly painter who is respectful in his conduct.

Juror # 7 (Jack Warner) The jokester of the group who makes his living selling Marmalade. He is looking forward to a Yankees baseball game and tries to push the proceedings forward as fast as possible.

Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) The eldest member of the jury and the first to side with Juror # 8. He has a fighting spirit and also some thoughtful observations on the case.

Juror # 10 (Ed Begley) A loud-mouthed older man with a penchant for insults and unsavory remarks about foreigners.

Juror # 11 (George Voskovec) He is a watchmaker and the foreigner in the group. However, he is obviously quite intelligent and passionate about American democracy. He takes seriously the duty that comes with being a juror.

Juror # 12 (Robert Webber) Lastly comes the wisecracking man in advertising who tries to lighten up the conversation. He is the major flip flopper in the group.

A mention now must be made of Sidney Lumet’s direction, because for his first film he was extremely bold to film it essentially in one room. He does it so wonderfully, however, because the confined space only heightens the drama thanks to his progressive change in camera angles. They start above eye level and slowly get lower as the drama increases. He is very rarely stagnant either, having the camera on the move or cutting to different characters. A great example of this is the tracking shot as the jurors enter the room. We are introduced to almost every character in such a fluid, natural way that sets up the story nicely.

There is so much else that could be said about Fonda’s performance and individual actors who I admire, but I will leave this discussion by saying that this is one of the greatest ensembles I have ever seen brought together. The intensity they created makes me want to get up right now and serve on a jury. Too bad I already served my jury duty this year!

5/5 Stars