Monday, August 31, 2020
From Now On That Counts
The deepest conversations I’m having these days are late at night, when it feels like the connection is strongest because why not just be honest and say what you really feel at that hour, even if a phone call is the closest you’re actually going to get to these people. Because, especially at a time like this, words matter. Friends matter. People matter. Love matters. That fight to make things better matters. But there are times when all those words, all those offers of connection, only help so much because you still find yourself alone. These days, we’re forced to be alone anyway. More than anything right now is the feeling of how empty things are without people around, whether they’re friends, family, certain women or whoever. And it hurts more all the time. There’s a scene early in Martin Ritt’s EDGE OF THE CITY when Sidney Poitier, the young Poitier with all the fire and energy in the world, lays it all out for his new friend played by John Cassavetes. You have to make a choice, he says, when it comes to which way to go in life. You can go with the men and you’re ten feet tall or go with the lower forms and you’re down in the slime. But the choice to be alone, he says, is the worst. The thing is, we don’t really have that choice right now so we’re trapped all alone with seemingly all that goddamn hate of the lower forms the only thing in sight. And it feels like there’s nothing we can do to get rid of it.
Released in 1957 when Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it an “ambitious little film” before settling into an undeservedly mixed notice, EDGE OF THE CITY is small but powerful and it deserves to be better known these days. My own first viewing was at the annual Noir City Festival some years back and it’s arguable if the film really qualifies as part of that genre (somebody get Eddie Muller on the phone to give us a definitive answer) but it absolutely knocked me out, one of those times when the second movie on a double bill comes up and the rest of the night instantly gets forgotten. Even if it doesn’t fall into that category, since it’s really more of a post-ON THE WATERFRONT social drama, the film offers a sense of humanity that finds its way into every scene making it feel alive, infused with that black & white location footage of New York from this period that I have a real jones for as if the very notion of seeing that era in color would be some sort of affront. Looking at EDGE OF THE CITY in the present time gives it an extra power while still making me aware of some of its drawbacks but even they help me understand what those themes really mean and how much they resonate. The film has a tangible sense of realism that’s felt throughout and an earnestness in how the characters interact that for a few moments almost make me feel hopeful about the possibilities in the world. Almost. As EDGE OF THE CITY reminds us, things can never be that easy. Not in 1957, definitely not in 2020.
A young man calling himself Axel North (John Cassavetes) shows up at the freight yards of New York looking for a job. He is assigned to the team of Charlie Malick (Jack Warden) unloading crates off trains but he soon befriends Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) another supervisor at the yard who manages to get Axel transferred over to his team, away from the bullying Malick. Their friendship quickly develops with Tommy helping Axel find a room to rent and, with his wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) assisting, introduces him to their friend Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), a schoolteacher who he quickly hits it off with. But when Charlie Malick catches on to the secret that Axel has been keeping from everyone, including his real name, and begins extorting part of his pay for staying quiet, Axel soon fights back leading to tragedy which forces him to decide if certain things are more important than the choice to keep running from his past.
From its very first moment, EDGE OF THE CITY is dynamically compelling with an energy and electricity to every scene, fast and to the point while still lingering for moments of intimacy between the characters that grow in power as the film reaches its climax. This is a movie that feels like it’s about to burst with the sense of life it has, made by people quickly building up to the great work they’re going to do and so much of that talent is already on display. For Martin Ritt, this was his feature debut after directing for television with his career sadly getting sidelined by the blacklist for several years in between but much of the film crackles with the immediacy of a live television broadcast in the best sense, marking the beginning of a filmography that would last over thirty years. Sidney Poitier made this between the likes of THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and THE DEFIANT ONES while for John Cassavetes it predates his own directorial debut SHADOWS by two full years, each bringing enormous power to their performances and the chemistry between them is totally genuine. Even if EDGE OF THE CITY isn’t the best known work of the people involved during this period the undeniable sense of humanity at its core has a true power even now from the main titles by Saul Bass, the jangling music by Leonard Rosenman, the tabloid harshness of the black and white cinematography by Joseph Brun as well as the extraordinary work by the actors involved. More than just a simple story of friendship and the unavoidable issue of race, within EDGE OF THE CITY is a yearning quality of asking if only things could be different. If only. If only there wasn’t so much hate and fear always getting in the way of the possibility for a decent life. If only you could say how you really feel and who you really are. If only there weren’t people so determined to make it all worse.
And with a screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur based on his teleplay “A Man is Ten Feet Tall” (which starred Poitier, the only actor to reprise his role here), the power of the film stands out even more because of how much it knows to spend time with those relationships as they get deeper, staying with them during the good times which gives the film a looseness to help set it apart from ON THE WATERFRONT, the easiest film to draw a comparison to. The main characters are so vividly drawn in how they go together that it’s easy to wish this was just a hangout movie following Tommy and Axel with their girls as they go out dancing and bowling, their scenes always playing out in a relaxed, natural way. Each of these actors go together, they get the jokes they’re making between the lines and the sense of yearning is felt every time the film pauses for those quiet character beats, seeming totally free within the moment. Of course this is the point, that life should be like this but the film knows it can’t be since that hatred is always hanging over things, the ugly racism of certain people always making it clear who they really are in this film that’s largely about people trying not to give into the darkness that’s always lingering nearby.
It’s a short film, only 85 minutes, but never in a rush and one brief scene is nothing but the two friends talking and laughing as they eat their lunch on top of a train car, the Empire State Building visible behind them. For a long stretch the plot barely even matters since it’s all about what they come to mean to each other, two guys who become friends in spite of what divides them racially, each standing out in the world around them for their own reasons. Tommy wastes no time in revealing his goodness and seems to be liked by almost everyone around him but Axel in particular displays a sensitivity that could be coded as gay, Jewish or maybe just a blacklisted screenwriter of the time, running from his past with those secrets that are tied into the conspiratorial nature of some early dialogue that could mean anything before we know what’s really going on. Of course he’s unable to escape who he is and what he’s done, eventually forced to confront the greatest source of hate around him to prove he can move forward. The question of what the world does to an individual, to make a person feel truly alone, is all over this post-blacklist film, asking how brave can you be and how willing are you to do the right thing no matter the consequences. As an actor Jack Warden was part of that world too, appearing in episodes of live TV as well as playing one of the 12 ANGRY MEN the same year as this film and the nastiness of his performance now plays as an unmistakable avatar for the hatred that oozes out of people prominent in our world right now. Certain words notably aren’t used in dialogue here, even if Richard Widmark already screamed the n-word right at Poitier in his debut film NO WAY OUT seven years earlier, but when Warden’s Charlie Malick calls Tommy “the blackest ape I ever saw” right to his face followed by just shouting the word “BLACK” at him nothing else is necessary. What he really means can be heard loud and clear.
In moments like that the anger is palpable and ugly but the film is equally unafraid of the pain caused by it and doesn’t hold back. Axel calls his parents, just wanting to hear their voices and unable to speak to them, driving his mother sick with grief not knowing what she did wrong and in the world of this film it’s the women who are really forced to deal with the weight of the world around them with her desperately wondering what she did to her son, the tentativeness of Kathleen Maguire’s Ellen talking about the social issues on her mind but especially the painful realism of Ruby Dee as Tommy’s wife Lucy, each of them seeming more aware of the troubles that are really out there. They’re not as willing to laugh it off as quickly as the men do over their post-dinner cigars, the way Poitier seems to dare Warden to say what he really thinks. The film is all about finding those moments, the way it pauses for a look Maguire gives early on mentally preparing herself for the first date with Axel, so even the briefest looks between the characters always mean something. “It’s important to me what happens to you,” a line of dialogue from one to another that feels so open and honest in the simplicity of the statement it’s impossible to imagine it in a film these days.
The momentary frenzy as the opening credits begin try to give it that feeling of immediate jeopardy with a punchy, tabloid flavor to those shots of the New York skyline that’s not what the movie really is let alone qualifying as noir. Even if it is a film about someone who only knows what it is to feel alone, a very noir concept if there ever was one, and he does have dark secrets that are gradually revealed but none of them are quite as melodramatic as you expect, understandable guilt involving the brother he loved more than anything and parents who he feels could never love him enough with still another secret that he keeps hoping he can outrun. This isn’t a world of active corruption so much as total uncaring passivity with the actor who plays the boss at the freight yard never revealing a speck of emotion about anything really going on there. The darkness of the genre is easily found in all that fear and hatred but the sense of hope still pokes through with the scene where Axel and Tommy first get to know each other out by the water, literally at the edge of the city, one of them getting the other to open up just enough to let the friendship begin. Martin Ritt’s directorial career became seemingly gentler over the years after this film all the way to his final work STANLEY & IRIS, two films made decades apart that each deal with social issues but ultimately are about one person desperately reaching out for a connection to help another and face their greatest regrets. If EDGE OF THE CITY is the beginning of his visual style it often seems no more complex than putting two people together in the frame, forced to understand each other, but the rawness gives it a vitality that I’m not sure his later films had to this extent so in its best moments this always feels genuine and real. The films directed by Martin Ritt are portraits of individuals and how they fit into the world they occupy, trying to hold onto who they are as well as what the right way to prove your worth is which goes beyond simple issues of genre into the question of what is right and how we can bring ourselves to face the next day.
As powerful as EDGE OF THE CITY is, there’s still a sense of formula within the narrative that dictates which direction the story is forced to take so no matter how good Poitier is, no matter how much his character means, it’s hard not to want the film around him to be more than that. He’s playing someone with depth and dimension but, after all, he’s still at the mercy of the film’s plot as well as the person who wants nothing but to destroy him. Part of the well-meaning idealism of the film’s message feels grounded in that era but looking at the film now, over sixty years after it was made, becomes a reminder that Black Lives, after all, do matter even when they’re only fictional and their inherent goodness should serve as more than just a lesson to the someone else in the film. This lingered in the back of my head the first time I saw the film those years ago and the ambivalence I feel about it is still there now even as recent tragic losses in the real world have made it clear how much power those people who leave us too soon can have. The genuinely progressive messages of the past still make sense now, even as we realize how much further we have to go beyond them to continue to fight back against that hate.
Along with all this, the plot itself isn’t quite airtight particularly how late in the film a certain character could simply go to the cops rather than take the direct action he does but the code of the film’s world that Tommy has established says that a man needs to stand up for himself in a definitive, physical way for the ending to really mean something. Things like this maybe hold EDGE OF THE CITY back from being a true classic when viewed now, but it still could be called at least a minor one or at least the very best film imaginable that you hope to discover in the back half of a Noir City double bill. Those films, after all, are the ones that sometimes affect us the most and in spite of whatever flaws may be there this one still contains an undeniable sense of humanity that shines so bright it can’t be ignored. The film allows for the feelings to play out whether the fear in John Cassavetes’ eyes or especially the sheer fury displayed by Ruby Dee during her own key scene late in the film as well as the power of the ending with the final bars of Leonard Rosenman’s score drilling those feelings deep down. Through all this, EDGE OF THE CITY is a great, emotional film that doesn’t hold back. Every moment of it has the feeling of absolute humanity and it’s the sort of film I wish that I could show to all those people who aren’t around right now to remind us of how good things could be in our dreams when we aren’t alone.
Every inch a movie star here, Sidney Poitier is so relaxed and natural that it’s a wonder to see, displaying his love for the people around them and bringing such a feel of humanity in how he displays that with even the tiniest gestures. The jittery nerves displayed by John Cassavetes go perfectly with that, taking the rhythm their scenes have and letting himself relax into their scenes together, building his character scene by scene to let both his pride and sadness come through all at once. Against all this, the bully that the great Jack Warden plays comes in like a freight truck in every scene, not a shred of likability, just pure bullying nastiness and still totally real. Ruby Dee takes a part which at first isn’t much more than playing Poitier’s wife that she turns it into a powerful reminder of everything that can be lost while Kathleen Maguire has a totally relaxed and engaging screen presence, revealing her shyness but also her intellect so you can tell that there’s much more to her character than just waiting around for a man to enter her life. Ruth White and Robert Simon are also enormously effective in their brief but crucial scenes as Axel’s parents making them more than just the way he describes them, yet another reminder in this film of the good things that are still out there in the world.
At a crucial moment late in EDGE OF THE CITY one character desperately exclaims, “This doesn’t make any sense.” That’s right, it doesn’t. Hate doesn’t make sense. And Hate doesn’t care. We have plenty of evidence of that these days so looking at this film now, right now, in 2020, maybe this one moment is what stands out more than anything. In 2020 when hatred and ignorance are causing things to get worse and people to die. You want to be able to laugh at them, those lower forms of animal life as Tommy Tyler calls them, the ones who don’t care about anything good but they still come at you with all their hate. EDGE OF THE CITY plays right now as someone desperately reaching out for a connection to find the goodness in the world, the good people, the ones who are out there, to help you make a choice, to be your own person and not so alone. It’s a nice thought and a reminder of the strength in this film with the hope that maybe things can still change for the better.