Sidney Poitier: Edge of the City (US 1957)

(from left) Malick (Jack Warden), Tommy (Sidney Poitier and Axel (John Cassavetes)

1957 marked a turning point in American cinema when it was becoming easier for blacklisted personnel in the industry to get jobs and to find sympathetic subjects to work on. Director Martin Ritt began his film career in television but was eventually forced out in the early 1950s after an anti-communist newsletter that accused him of supporting communists in US trade unions. Like Nicholas Ray, his background was the 1930s theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. He was also closely allied to Elia Kazan. After four years back in the theatre world he made Edge of the City as his first cinema feature and looking through the credits of the film I notice several of his creative colleagues are associated with socially conscious films of one kind or another. Ritt himself would go on to have a successful career even though he started relatively late as a director, being nearly 43 when the film was released. His is one of the names I remember from the 1960s because of the progressive subject matter of his films.

Edge of the City presents a story set in the docklands of New York and features John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier as joint topliners. Axel North (Cassavetes) is a young drifter who blags his way into a job as a stevedore (US: longshoreman) based on a tip he must have received, only to discover that he has been duped and that he has to pay a cut of his wages to gang leader Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). But on his first day he also makes contact with another gang leader, the more friendly Tommy Tyler (Poitier). The two quickly form a bond. Though Axel remains wary, he ends up renting a room close to Tommy’s home. Tommy turns out to be be a ‘good guy’ who introduces Axel to his wife (Ruby Dee in one of her several roles with Poitier) and small son. The couple even find Axel a date with Ellen (Kathleen Maguire) and invite them both to dinner and dancing in a club. Axel is very nervous and by chance an incident threatens to reveal something about his background – we already know he has a difficult relationship with his parents. Gradually he opens up to Tommy.

Lucy Tyler (Ruby Dee) in the foreground with Axel and Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire) who develops a relationship with Axel

The closer Axel and Tommy get, the more we fear that trouble at work will emerge created by a vengeful Malick. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t recount any more of the plot except to say that the work confrontation does provide the climax of the narrative. I want instead to make more general comments. The first is to express some disappointment that we don’t learn too much about the job which appears to be confined to a small area in which boxes and other larger containers are being loaded onto railway freight wagons. The presentation of parts of New York is in line with the general realist work familiar from late 1940s films and 1950s filmed TV series. The jazz-tinged score by Leonard Rosenman is perhaps the marker of a period when black and white features like this used jazz as a sign of modernity. The dancing featured in the film seemed almost free-form to me but I’m no expert on dance at this time.

As my title for this post makes clear, I chose this film because of Poitier. At this point in his career he was mostly playing supporting roles. It would be in the following year with The Defiant Ones (1958) that he would receive joint top billing in a major feature. In Edge of the City, though Poitier had featured in prominent roles in several ‘A’ films, his billing was shared with Cassavetes. Two years younger than Poitier, Cassavetes had many TV credits to his name but only two films, being ‘Introduced’ in 1956 in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets. Intrigued by the background of this film I started to research it more deeply. I discovered that it was in effect a remake of a celebrated TV play from 1955 titled A Man is Ten Feet Tall written by Robert Aurthur and directed by Robert Mulligan and Hal Tulchin for ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Poitier repeats his role as Tommy Tyler but the rest of the cast for TV was different. I think the TV version was only 60 minutes whereas the film is 85 mins – I’m guessing that the Axel’s back story featuring his parents is one of the extra elements.

Axel watches Tommy and Lucy dance.

Edge of the City is Axel’s story and, though a major presence, Tommy Tyler is a secondary character. In institutional terms Poitier’s career is not moving forward. The role itself does seem to confirm the Poitier persona as a ‘good Negro’ in 1950s terms. But his ‘goodness’ is presented through the way he welcomes Axel and looks after him. In some ways Tommy seems just too welcoming, too friendly. Is he a bit isolated at work himself? Is it that he ‘feels’ Axel’s sense of isolation and that the two of them would both benefit from a strong bond of friendship? We don’t really learn how Tommy came to be a gang-leader. Come to that, we get only brief glimpses of the management of the dock work. I’m tempted to compare Edge of the City to two other features set around the same time. In Flame in the Streets (UK 1961) it is the possibility that a West Indian migrant might become a factory foreman in a London company that causes major problems within the trade union. The film stars Earl Cameron – in some ways the UK’s own Poitier figure, but not so successful. In 1959 Harry Belafonte heads a starry cast in Odds Against Tomorrow, a New York-set crime film with a little of the same feel for New York as Edge of the City. Belafonte had a quite different career compared to Poitier. Perhaps his star image as a popular singer was a major factor in winning him lead roles starting with his second film Otto Preminger’s Carmen (1954)? Belafonte also moved into co-producer and later producer roles, including his 1972 film Buck and the Preacher, directed by Poitier and starring the two of them.

Axel and Tommy need to remain vigilant at work.

The promotion of Edge of the City and much of the writing around the film focuses on Malick’s ‘bigotry’ and in particular his racism. Malick is certainly a bigot and a bully and racism is part of that bigotry. But I’m not sure that institutional racism in terms of employment opportunities on the docks is represented in the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that the dock workers are all white except Tommy, but this isn’t true. There must be four or five other black workers but I don’t think they are speaking parts – perhaps their silence is a feature of their secondary status? (See the black worker in the background of the image above.) But Tommy is certainly vocal and in a position of some authority. It does look as if Malick’s gang is whites only, but I can’t be sure. Although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed that there was no union presence as such and that other workers were prepared to stand back both when Malick was the attacker and when he was losing a fight or an argument. Tommy doesn’t seem to be associated with the other black workers. Edge of the City is not really attempting to copy On The Waterfront as some reviews suggest. Axel is really the protagonist and the narrative is his ‘journey’ towards finding himself and finding the courage to act. Poitier’s character is arguably another ‘good Negro’ teaching whites how to work and live with dignity and purpose – and suffering for it.

Possibly the film is trying to do too much. Axel’s back story is a driving force and is gradually revealed over the course of the film. It means that the potentially interesting characters of  Lucy and Ellen are perhaps not developed as much as they could be. Cassavetes was well on the way to stardom with this film. It seems to have taken longer for Poitier, though in the end he made it all the way to the top and Cassavetes moved into directing independent films with acting as something to help pay the bills. Martin Ritt would work on a range of films deemed ‘liberal’ including other ‘men at work’ pictures and others with black protagonists. He again worked with Sidney Poitier, alongside Paul Newman Joanne Woodward, in Paris Blues (1961) and later with Cicely Tyson as part of a sharecropping family in the South in the 1930s in Sounder (1972). Despite my misgivings Edge of the City is definitely a film worth watching and an interesting step forward for Sidney Poitier.

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