Edge of the City (1957)

Edge of the City (1957) is a drifter stevedore race relations buddy film noir starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes as two dockside workers involved in one of the worst workplace bullying stories in all of film noir.

Down at the docks where the men are we witness the petty trials of labour teams and the spilling over of race relations into murder. John Cassavetes is an insecure war deserter, a peripheral social figure and not one we see often enough in noir — where historically the hero has seen action.

This is different however, and the tough and realistic noir drama that takes place is as great a testament to left wing politics as it is to humanity and the value of integrity in all things.

Also in the cast are Kathleen Maguire, Ruby Dee, Robert F Simon, Ruth White, Val Avery, William A Lee, John Kellogg and David Clarke.

Edge of the City carries off an excellent buddy noir story but before that John Cassavetes takes part in some generational-stress-style story-telling, at the head of the show on the telephone to his poor long suffering but soft and sympathetic mother from the edge of the city. 

His father says twice to emphasis it: "You're killing your mother!"

In this manner film noir in 1957 is still telling the ultimate post-war story, that of a man getting on in a cold hard city, living on the edge and seeing of he can make it, anywhere. The edge here being the edge of the city — a classic film noir title in the making with edge suggestive of the periphery and the liminal emotional and urban zones where such action only may take place.

And of course the social edges that rub against each other until bursting into strife.

The docks are of course literally the edge of the city too, but there is more about living on the edge that might possibly expressed by any decent critic of the style — there being the edge of respectability, and the edge of employability — as well as the edge of sociability.

Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes in Edge of the City (1957)

Our heroes live on the edge of race relations too, cracking up the dockland warehouses with their gaiety and antics, and their double dates and visits to dance clubs were the coy and self-effacing shy and neurotic, paranoid and on the run figure of John Cassavetes states that he cannot dance — like that.

Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City (1957)

Jon Cassavetes' character Axel North arrives at the dockside where he begins working but also encounters, aside from a workplace bully, an antidote to everything wrong with the post-Enlightenment world in the figure of Sidney Poitier, all-healing, all-inclusive fun team leader, who makes work and life a lot of fun.

A buddy-movie starts to develop and the question arises: is the new boy going to kick-back a quarter an hour like he is supposed to in order to keep his employ?

Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes in Edge of the City (1957)

The film's villain is played by Jack Warden who is a dockyard worker taking kickbacks from his team, a man who hates his fellow team-leader TT, played by Poitier, and maybe not just because he is black. This is because Edge of the City does not even need to be read as a lecture on race relations, but about the limits we place on ourselves, and the implications of corruption on relationships, and of course on one's own soul.

In 1952 director Martin Ritt was caught up by the Red Scare and investigations of communist influence in Hollywood and the movie industry. Workers rights and race relations were not fully nor actually tackled in On the Waterfront (1954) which makes Edge of the City (1957) a strong antidote as well as a companion to it.

Although not directly named by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Martin Ritt was mentioned in an anti-communist newsletter called Counterattack, published by American Business Consultants, a group formed by three former FBI agents.

Counterattack alleged that Martin Ritt had helped Communist Party-affiliated locals of the New York-based Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union stage their annual show. 

City Noir — Edge of the City (1957)

Also cited was a show he had directed for Russian War Relief at Madison Square Garden. His associations with the Group Theater, founded on a Russian model, and the Federal Theater Project (which Congress had stopped funding in 1939 because of what some anti-New Deal congressmen claimed to be a left-wing political tone to some productions), were also known to HUAC. 

Bar room blues in Edge of the City (1957)

He was finally blacklisted by the television industry when a Syracuse grocer charged him with donating money to Communist China in 1951. He supported himself for five years by teaching at the Actors Studio.

Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes in Edge of the City (1957)

Unable to work in the television industry, Martin Ritt returned to the theatre for several years. By 1956, the Red Scare had lessened in intensity, and he turned to film directing. His first film as director was this current masterpiece of intuitive insight, the highly enjoyable Edge of the City (1957), an important film for Ritt and an opportunity to give voice to his experiences.

Based on the story of a union dock worker who faces intimidation by a corrupt boss, the film incorporates many themes that were to influence Ritt over the years — corruption, racism, intimidation of the individual by the group, defence of the individual against government oppression, and the redeeming quality of mercy and the value of shielding others from evil, even if it meant self-sacrifice

Ritt went on to direct 25 more films. Producer Jerry Wald signed him to direct No Down Payment (1957) with Joanne Woodward. Wald later used Ritt on two adaptations of William Faulkner novels, both with Woodward — The Long, Hot Summer (1958) with Paul Newman, a big hit, and The Sound and the Fury (1959) with Yul Brynner, a flop.

Sidney Poitier and Kathleen Maguire in Edge of the City (1950)

In between, he directed The Black Orchid (1958) at Paramount, and he then did 5 Branded Women (1960) in Europe.

Ritt directed Paris Blues (1961) with Woodward and Newman. He made one more film with Wald, Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man (1962). Ritt and Newman had a big hit with Hud (1963).

Home in the city — the men play while the women work? Edge of the City (1957)

Martin Ritt's 1964 film The Outrage is an American retelling of the Kurosawa film Rashomon, and stars Laurence Harvey, Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson, Howard da Silva, and William Shatner. 

Like Kurosawa's film, Ritt employs flashbacks in his film. Paul Newman was fond of this role. He travelled to Mexico and spent time speaking to local residents to study the accents. Newman liked that the film's narrative included different points of view.

Ritt directed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton, then one more movie with Newman, Hombre (1967) ending the '60s with The Brotherhood (1968). Ritt also directed the ultimate Red Scare blacklist paranoia movie, The Front (1976).

One thing Sidney Poitiers personally manages to achieve in Edge of the City (1957) is not just to break up the drudge of the workplace but to manhandle the US family model into something more fun too. He really enjoys domesticity which is unusual to see.

But he makes life and even makes racial tension fun, and also encourages self-respect in John Cassavetes unsure character, whom he makes seven and half feet tall — also Cassavetes says "Yes sir," to him at one point, a surely and simply provocative and effective split second of screen time.

He does still have the stumbling block of what Ruby Dee, playing his wife, refers to as 'the submerged class of women'

The portrayal of interracial friendships in American films evolved slowly in the film noir years. In the early decades of Hollywood cinema, racial segregation and discriminatory practices were pervasive, limiting the opportunities for positive depictions of interracial friendships on screen. 

However, there were instances where filmmakers attempted to challenge these norms. One notable example is the film Imitation of Life (1934).

Directed by John M. Stahl, Imitation of Life is an early and significant film that explored racial issues and relationships. The story revolves around the friendship between two women, one white and one Black, who form a close bond while raising their daughters together. The film addresses themes of race, identity, and social norms, though it is important to acknowledge that it reflects the racial attitudes of its time, and the Black characters are still marginalized within the narrative.

During the era of classical Hollywood cinema, explicit and nuanced explorations of interracial friendships were relatively rare due to the industry's adherence to racial stereotypes and segregationist policies.

"I'm sorry, I — I can't dance like that." Jazz club in Edge of the City (1957)

As societal attitudes evolved and the civil rights movement gained momentum in the mid-20th century, Hollywood  began to explore interracial relationships and friendships in more complex ways. The 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is often cited as a milestone in depicting an interracial romantic relationship, challenging societal norms at the time.

Directed by Stanley Kramer, this film stars Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton as an interracial couple who visit the white woman's parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. 

The film addresses the racial prejudices and challenges faced by the couple, reflecting the changing dynamics of American society during the civil rights era.

Ruby Dee in Edge of the City (1950)

While these early films addressed interracial relationships, stereotypes persisted in Hollywood's portrayal of race during these periods. The more nuanced and diverse representations of interracial friendships became more prominent in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, reflecting evolving societal attitudes and a commitment to more inclusive storytelling.

The oldest film noir theme of all remains fore and present — the past being a problem in the present, for hapless heel of a hero Axel Nordmann, who is such a coward that he can't ask a woman out on a date, nor even have the courage to ask her to dance when his is forced onto the date - he is not going to be able to break rank and report a racially motivated workplace murder.

Poitier's performance received glowing reviews, and the film, along with Blackboard Jungle, helped establish him as one of Hollywood's few established representatives for black Americans.

Cassavetes also won acclaim for his portrayal, which resembled that of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954). John Cassavetes' character of Axel Nordmann was notable for its hint of homosexuality, which was uncommon for the time. The Motion Picture Production Code Administration allowed the innuendo, but recommended "extremely careful handling to avoid planting the suspicion that he may be homosexual" (quoted from Goudsouzian, Aram (2003). Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 117–122.)

Both Edge of the City and Something of Value (1957) are variations on an this later 1950's Poitier theme and specialty, the black-white buddy movie, the most striking example of which is perhaps Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958), in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played escaped convicts shackled to each other.

Jack Warden in Edge of the City (1957)

One history of African-Americans in film, however, originally published by author Donald Bogle in 1973, was critical of Poitier's portrayal, referring to him as portraying a "colorless black" with "little ethnic juice in his blood." His death scene is described as being in the tradition of "the dying slave content that he has served the massa" (quoted from Bogle, Donald (December 2001). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. Continuum (paperback ed.). p.181.

Bogle writes that Poitier's "loyalty to the white Cassavetes destroys him just as much as the old slave's steadfastness kept him in shackles."

City Noir in Edge of the City (1957)

Regardless Edge of the City is a compact and loveable film noir from late in the cycle, which takes all the juice of the earlier style and squeezes a moving and critical race relations story about corruption of the workplace and corruption of the soul, and displays a strong contrast between two men's and maybe two culture's attitudes to American work, marriage and social living.

This is pure and true and hard-wearing noir from the edge of the canon, with a restrained budget and tight directorial control, a well focused script and memorable fondness between the two friends around whom the story turns. 

Edge of the City remains an unheralded classic, and is a little less flashy and method-based than its big pants wearing fatter and older sibling, On the Waterfront. Edge of the City is a noir to classify as important but forgotten film as it is not just limited in its themes to the racial issues. 

During the 1950s, the handling of U.S. Army deserters was governed by military law, and desertion was considered a serious offense. In 1957, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War, and military discipline was strictly enforced. The idea of cowardice and action, as well as inaction and self-determination make a great and underplayed hand of ideas in Edge of the City (1957) which does not overstate anything but always leaves it to the actors.

Corruption and workers’ rights are  important and he two women in the movie are indicative of a change in other kinds of relations too, although most simply expressed the idea of harmonious integration is given such a sound kicking by Jack Warden’s bullying dockside racism and spite.

Edge of the City (1957) at Wikipedia

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