Saturday 5 September 2009

Edge of the City (1957)

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier

In 1955 Sidney Poitier starred in the very last episode of The Philco Television Playhouse, a highly respected live TV drama series, called A Man is Ten Feet Tall. He played Tommy Tyler, with Don Murray as Alex Nordman. Two years later he's back in the same role, but on the big screen, retitled to Edge of the City and with John Cassavetes playing Nordmann, now with an extra N. Martin Ritt directed in his big screen debut, beginning a career that would go on not just to many Paul Newman films from The Long, Hot Summer and Paris Blues to Hud and Hombre, even the American remake of Rashomon called The Outrage, but also to other diverse features such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Sounder and Norma Rae. While the story was apparently written for TV with Poitier in mind as Tyler, the film is really about Nordmann and it's his character that has the real depth.

We're in New York City at the railroad yards where Nordmann has come to get a job as a stevedore. He keeps his past very much hidden and even his name too, calling himself Alex North instead. He has an in at the yards, a man called Charlie Malik, but while Malik plays along because of a name that gets dropped it's pretty obvious from moment one that they've never met and have no idea who the other is. That name is the key to it all: it's what tells Malik that he's hiding something important, important enough to warrant a kickback to prevent him letting on to the bosses.

Everything would work slick and smooth, with North working on Malik's stevedore gang and chipping him a quarter an hour for the privilege, but even before he's met Malik he's already bumped into a cat called TT. TT is Tommy Tyler, of course, and Poitier demonstrates in no uncertain terms just why this story was written for him, regardless of who it's really about. He's utterly infectious here, all over the film like a rash and it's impossible not to watch him. Cassavetes is no minor talent and he does a great job here, but as Axel is about hiding and Tyler is about not hiding, he gets the unenviable job of trying to shine without being obvious while his co-star is supposed to be obvious.

Tyler takes a real interest in Axel and before long they're not just co-workers with Axel working on TT's gang but firm friends too. When they're not working they're hanging out together back at Tyler's place with Tommy's wife Lisa and a friend of the family called Ellen Wilson that they try to hook him up with. Given that Ruby Dee played alongside Poitier in four movies in the fifties alone, plus two later on, it almost feels like home to us too. Life is pretty good, but there's always Malik and Axel's hidden past to contend with and as we soon find out it isn't one small enough to be ignored. Axel is an army deserter, facing 20 years if the cops or the army catch up with him, but he's really been running a lot longer than that and that's what this film is all about: fear.

Early on in the film Tyler tells us where the original title came from. In his philosophy there are two types of people in the world: not black and white, as you may expect given that this is Sidney Poitier and 1957, but what he calls men and the lower forms. Men are people who stand up for themselves and take care of their responsibilities and the lower forms are those who exploit and are exploited. If you go with the men, Tyler tells us, you're ten feet tall. If you go with the lower forms, you're nothing. Of course Tyler's a man in his own estimation, while Malik is a lower form. The drive of the story is Axel, who gets to change from one to the other by conquering his fear.

It's a pretty deep script wrapped up in a tight and tough drama. Most obviously the fear belongs to Axel, as we see from moment one when he rings his mother in Gary, Indiana. He talks to her but he keeps his hand over the mouthpiece so she can't hear him, not for the first time either. He's running from his family, from what he thinks people feel; he's running from the army, of course, and the cops; though really he's running from himself, the thing inside him that stops him taking a stand. Tyler's a huge part of how he changes, but he's not the only factor.

Jack Warden is excellent as Charlie Malik, a thug of a man who we discover is really a racist at heart. That little subplot is hardly surprising and while it does appear to detract a little from the core of the story, it really shows another aspect of it, racism being is rooted in fear, after all. Ellen Wilson, the girl that the Tylers set Axel up with, is also afraid but in a very different way. She's a massively intelligent woman whose drive to learn has put her somewhat above those around her, working as a teacher and trying to find a way to connect back down to the rest of humanity. The connection helps Axel and Ellen both. Kathleen Maguire does a solid job, though this was her first film of only five and it looks to be most prominent role.

Amazingly the acting, while solid throughout, isn't what really makes this film so worthwhile. Its biggest success is the fact that it refuses to go down any of the directions we expect, courtesy of writer Robert Alan Aurthur who also wrote the original teleplay. It covers racism, but not as a be all and end all concept, racism just being another example of fear. There's an off hand comment halfway through the film about people needing to be 110% American, especially at this point in time, and this really speaks to the heart of that. It isn't a socialist film or a communist film, but it's one that raises a lot of questions about what the House Un-American Affairs Committee was doing at the time. Tyler would have called them lower forms.

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