In “Edge of the City” (1957, dir. Martin Ritt), drifter Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes, in a key early performance) arrives at the New York City docks looking for work as a stevedore (or longshoreman). He quickly finds it through a murky connection to crooked foreman Charlie Malick (Jack Warden), who, it turns out, receives kickbacks from the men working under him.
Axel, who gives his last name as North to cover up a past crime, has seemingly been on the run for a while – he phones his parents at home in Gary, Indiana, but freezes up and is unable to say anything once they get on the line. Axel finds redemption through his friendship with Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier, also in an important early role), another foreman who is the polar opposite of Malick: free-spirited and life-affirming. In a beautiful scene early in the movie, Nordmann and Tyler sit by the water while Tyler offers food and conversation to the young drifter: the shimmering river behind the two men is significant as it frames them and their budding friendship. It is the first time to this point where the screen has not felt dense with the clutter of city life but instead free and breathable.
As the friendship develops, Nordmann moves to Harlem near Tyler and his wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) and meets local school teacher Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire). Eventually, Nordmann must face up to his past as well as the corruption that he and Tyler deal with everyday on the docks.
The film features a dynamic music score by Leonard Rosenman (a favorite composer of mine ever since I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in middle school!) and great black-and-white on-location photography around New York City by Joseph Brun (Odds Against Tomorrow, Who Killed Teddy Bear). The film was pioneering in the portrayal of an interracial friendship – apparently MGM produced it knowing that it would not play on movie screens in the South, a brave move! Also brave was the decision by producer David Susskind (later a prominent TV talk show host) to hire Martin Ritt to direct. This was Ritt’s first credit in a long career which included “Hud,” “Sounder,” and “Norma Rae.” Ritt, a friend and protege of Elia Kazan, had earlier been blacklisted.
“Edge of the City” was an adaptation of a 1955 TV movie called “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall” written by Robert Alan Aurthur, who also writes the screenplay here. While maybe a bit overly-redolent of “On the Waterfront,” “Edge of the City” still deserves to be regarded in its own right for its gritty look and subject matter, the performances of Cassavetes and Poitier, and the moving friendship across the racial divide which forms the heart of the movie.
When Sidney Poitier passed away on the 6th of this month at the age of 94, my first impulse was to call my mom. When I was in middle school, Mom recognized that I was becoming a film buff and one day said to me, “Let’s watch some movies starring a very special actor named Sidney Poitier.” I had heard of Poitier but had no idea who he was. Over the course of a few weeks, we watched together on VHS “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies of the Field,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Patch of Blue,” and “To Sir, with Love.” I have seen other Poitier films since then but I always think of how fun it was to watch those movies with her. She was right: he was a great actor and a great man. I called her right after I watched “Edge of the City,
a few days after Poitier had died.
“Thank you for introducing me to Sidney Poitier, Mom!”
And thank you, Mr. Poitier!