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.