Rob Harmon’s Picks 1/25/22 — “Edge of the City” (1957), starring Sidney Poitier & John Cassavetes

BVFCC staffer Rob Harmon.

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!

New Releases 12/16/14

Top Hits
Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen-directed romance/comedy, Colin Firth. Rotten Tomatoes: 54%. Metacritic: 51. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ Woody Allen’s new film, stages a debate that will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than a couple of the previous 43. There are various ways to characterize the argument: between reason and superstition; between doubt and faith; between realism and magic. On one side is the belief in some kind of unseen, metaphysical force governing the universe; on the other is the certainty, shared by the director, that no such thing exists. Not incidentally — and not for the first time in Mr. Allen’s oeuvre — the opposed positions are advanced by a dyspeptic middle-aged intellectual and a much younger, relatively untutored woman.” Read more…)

This Is Where I Leave You (drama, Jason Bateman. Rotten Tomatoes: 42%. Metacritic: 44. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Shortly after Judd Altman discovers his wife in bed with his boss, he learns that his father has died. The old man’s dying wish was that the Altman family — his widow and their four children — observe the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, even though he was never especially religious. That means spending seven days together in a big suburban house, accepting condolences amid platters of food. For Judd, embodied by Jason Bateman with his usual air of beleaguered responsibility, a family reunion following a marital calamity is a nightmare. For ‘This Is Where I Leave You,’ Shawn Levy’s adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s comic best seller, it’s a promising start.” Read more…)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (comic Book action, Megan Fox. Rotten Tomatoes: 22%. Metacritic: 31. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “The shelled foursome of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ was commodified so early in its infancy, during the toy fads of the 1980s, that it’s difficult to get riled up over the latest piece of cinematic merchandising. Produced by the ‘Transformers’ impresario Michael Bay and directed by the dutiful Jonathan Liebesman, this new adventure is executed so ordinarily, and with such tunnel vision, that it feels homogenized.” Read more…)

The Skeleton Twins (comedy/drama, Bill Hader. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 74. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “The movie, directed by Craig Johnson [the tiny indie ‘True Adolescents’] from a screenplay he wrote with Mark Heyman (a writer on “Black Swan”), is keenly attuned to the bonds of siblings, especially twins. If countless movies about brothers and sisters reveal common family traits, ‘The Skeleton Twins’ is subtler than most in evoking a mutual sympathy that might be called a cellular understanding.” Read more…)

The Maze Runner (action, Dylan O’Brien. Rotten Tomatoes: 63%. Metacritic: 56. From Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review: “‘The Maze Runner,’ adapted from James Dashner’s novel, is a perfectly serviceable entry in the young-adult dystopian sweepstakes. It combines elements of ‘Lord of the Flies’ with the Minotaur and Orpheus myths, but it plays as something closer to ‘The Hunger Games’ experienced through a dissociative fog. Much suspense comes from wondering which favored Hollywood twist the movie will employ. Is this actually the present day? Has someone blown up the planet?” Read more…)

The Skeleton Twins (comedy/drama, Bill Hader. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 74. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “The movie, directed by Craig Johnson [the tiny indie ‘True Adolescents’] from a screenplay he wrote with Mark Heyman (a writer on “Black Swan”), is keenly attuned to the bonds of siblings, especially twins. If countless movies about brothers and sisters reveal common family traits, ‘The Skeleton Twins’ is subtler than most in evoking a mutual sympathy that might be called a cellular understanding.” Read more…)

New Blu-Rays
The Maze Runner
This Is Where I Leave You

New American Back Catalog DVDs (post-1960)
Edge of the City (1957, social drama, Sidney Poitier. From Bosley Crowther’s 1957 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “There may be a half-dozen moments in the ambitious little film ‘Edge of the City,’ which made it to Broadway and Loew’s State yesterday, when you feel that the author and the director (not to mention the actors) are coming close to some sort of fair articulation of the complexities of racial brotherhood. One is when John Cassavetes, as a hobo just come to town and going to work as a hustler of freight in a West Side terminal, sits down at lunch hour with Sidney Poitier, as a Negro experienced at the work, and goes through a terse and guarded routine of getting acquainted with him.” Read more…)

New Television
Arrested Development: Season 4
The Americans: Season 2
Broad City: Season 1

New Documentaries
20,000 Days on Earth (music bio, Nick Cave. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 83. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “‘Memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive are tied up in memory.’ So observes the dour songwriter Nick Cave during an interview with the noted British psychoanalyst Darian Leader, in ‘20,000 Days on Earth.’ The film, a fusion of documentary and drama directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, is a fictional re-creation of the 20,000th day of Mr. Cave’s life, when he started recording his 2013 album, ‘Push the Sky Away.’ It is as intimate and honest a portrait of a rock artist’s creative roots as any film has attempted.” Read more…)

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (pop music, Alex Chilton. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Metacritic: 69. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “Forty years ago a mob of rock critics gathered for a convention cooked up by a promoter for the Memphis band Big Star, which played a praised set. That image of a cherished, practically mythic concert for an adoring and grateful few helps lay down the mood for ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.’ A well-sourced account of a perfect, broken dream, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s slightly shaggy documentary captures what it’s like to discover music so good it seems as if it were made just for you.” Read more…)

Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero (Latin American history, war, religion, Oscar Romero)

New Music DVDs
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (pop music, Alex Chilton. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Metacritic: 69. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “Forty years ago a mob of rock critics gathered for a convention cooked up by a promoter for the Memphis band Big Star, which played a praised set. That image of a cherished, practically mythic concert for an adoring and grateful few helps lay down the mood for ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.’ A well-sourced account of a perfect, broken dream, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s slightly shaggy documentary captures what it’s like to discover music so good it seems as if it were made just for you.” Read more…)

20,000 Days on Earth (music bio, Nick Cave. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 83. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “‘Memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive are tied up in memory.’ So observes the dour songwriter Nick Cave during an interview with the noted British psychoanalyst Darian Leader, in ‘20,000 Days on Earth.’ The film, a fusion of documentary and drama directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, is a fictional re-creation of the 20,000th day of Mr. Cave’s life, when he started recording his 2013 album, ‘Push the Sky Away.’ It is as intimate and honest a portrait of a rock artist’s creative roots as any film has attempted.” Read more…)