February 14, 2015

Edge of the City (1957)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: Sidney Poitier, John Cassavetes, Jack Warden

What it's about. Axel (John Cassavetes) is a troubled young man. He is broke, wanted by the Army for desertion, and desperate to keep his new job as a longshoreman. Two men vie to be his boss, corrupt bully Charlie (Jack Warden) and friendly Tommy (Sidney Poitier). Charlie despises Tommy, presumably because he is black, but likely also because his team cuts into Charlie's power and payoffs.

Tommy showers unlikely attention on grateful Axel, and they become best friends. Tommy's attractive and devoted wife is played by Ruby Dee. Tommy sets the clueless Axel up with Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), and because it is a movie, the two are soon a couple.

But by now Charlie knows about Axel's past, and relentlessly intimidates him at work. When Tommy intervenes on Axel's behalf, Charlie and Tommy fight to the death with grappling hooks. The police investigate the apparent murder, but only a single witness is willing to testify: Axel.

How others will see it. The plot has many similarities to its famous predecessor, On the Waterfront (1954). The corrupt and murderous union leader must be taken down, but the other workers refuse to testify, in fear of their lives. Our protagonist has a predictable new romance.

But there are significant differences as well. The racial aspects omnipresent in Edge of the City are absent from the Brando vehicle, which instead featured a Catholic priest as a hero. Brando was a union insider, while Axel is a powerless outsider.

In any event, Edge of the City was a box office dud, although Poitier, Cassavetes, and formerly blacklisted director Martin Ritt soon advanced to bigger projects. The movie was ignored by both the Oscars and Golden Globes, but BAFTA nominated it for Best Film and gave Poitier a nomination as Best Foreign Actor, presumably for its favorable depiction of interracial friendship.

Today at imdb.com, Edge of the City has a respectable 1,630 user votes and a consistent user rating of 7.2. Most viewers find the drama riveting and identify with Cassavetes' typically intense performance. Poitier provides genuine star power, and familiar supporting actor Warden is well cast as the malevolent union leader on the take.

How I felt about it. It is interesting to read others state that Axel might be homosexual, when it is Poitier who appears to be pursuing Axel. His ceaseless interest in Axel has no other obvious explanation. It is curious that the extroverted Poitier appears to be friendless except for Axel and his bland would-be girlfriend Ellen.

Actually, the movie seldom rings true. Does Axel really believe he will go to prison for 20 years for peacetime desertion? Does Charlie have any redeeming aspects? Why does Axel's father beg him to come home when, earlier in the movie, Axel compared him with Charlie?

Finally, why risk your life fighting Jack Warden with grappling hooks? Axel can testify against Warden without having to drag him unconscious into a police station.

There is an entertaining scene with Poitier tossing his lunch pail around the loading dock. And aged Estelle Hemsley has a funny bit where she complains that she missed some of the Sid Caesar show because she had to babysit her grandson. Such moments are insufficient to carry the movie.

The culprit appears to be the writer, Robert Alan Aurthur, since Ritt eventually directed several notable films. Aurthur's obsession with angst blockades his storytelling.