Edge of the City

Edge of the City is a 1957 American film-noir drama film directed by Martin Ritt, starring John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier.[2] It was Ritt's debut film as a director. Robert Alan Aurthur's screenplay was expanded from his original script, staged as the final episode of Philco Television Playhouse, A Man Is Ten Feet Tall (1955), also featuring Poitier.

Edge of the City
Theatrical release poster designed by Saul Bass
Directed byMartin Ritt
Produced byJim Di Gangi
David Susskind
Screenplay byRobert Alan Aurthur
Story byRobert Alan Aurthur
StarringJohn Cassavetes
Sidney Poitier
Jack Warden
Music byLeonard Rosenman
CinematographyJoseph Brun
Edited bySidney Meyers
David Susskind Productions
Jonathan Productions
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • January 29, 1957 (1957-01-29)
Running time
85 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$760,000[1]

The film was considered unusual for its time because of its portrayal of an interracial friendship, and was praised by representatives of the NAACP, Urban League, American Jewish Committee and Interfaith Council because of its portrayal of racial brotherhood.[3]


Young drifter Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes) arrives at the waterfront on the west side of Manhattan, seeking employment as a longshoreman, and giving his name as "Alex North." He goes to work in a gang of stevedores headed by Charlie Malick (Jack Warden) a vicious bully, and is befriended by Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier), who also supervises a stevedore gang and has an engaging, charming sense of humor. Malick resents blacks in positions of authority, and is antagonized when Axel goes to work for Tommy.

Axel moves into Tommy's neighborhood and becomes friends with Tommy's wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) and becomes romantically involved with her friend Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire). Tommy serves as a mentor to Axel, urging him to stand up to Malick, and that if he does he will be "ten feet tall." It is apparent from the start that Axel is hiding something, and it emerges that he is a deserter from the United States Army. Malick is aware of that, and is extorting money from him.

Malick frequently tries to provoke Tommy and Axel into fights, with Tommy coming to Axel's aid. Malick finally provokes Tommy into a fight, with both men using their baling hooks. Tommy at one point disarms Malick and implores him to stop, but Malick seizes the hook and kills him. The police investigation is stymied by lack of cooperation from the longshoremen, including Axel. But after meeting with the distraught Lucy, who accuses him of never being Tommy's friend as he knows who killed Tommy but has not told the police, Axel finally decides to cooperate. He goes to Malick to tell him that. They get into a fight, and in the end, though beaten, Axel strangles Malick unconscious and drags him away to face justice.



Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer budgeted only $500,000 for the film because its racial content was believed to limit its marketability in the south. Poitier was paid $15,000 for the role and received his first co-star billing, though it was considered small by movie industry standards. Ritt, who had been blacklisted, was paid only $10,000. The film was shot on location at a railroad yard in Manhattan and on St. Nicholas Terrace in New York's Harlem.[3]

Poitier was the only actor remaining from the TV version, in which the Jack Warden character was played by Martin Balsam and the Cassavetes character was played by Don Murray. The TV version was directed by Robert Mulligan. The script was completely rewritten for the film.[3]

The opening title sequence and theatrical release poster were designed by Saul Bass. The score was composed, conducted and orchestrated by Leonard Rosenman.[4]


Critical response

The film earned positive reviews,[5] with critics praising the unusual multiracial relationship between the Poitier and Cassavetes characters. Up till then, whites were ordinarily shown in positions of authority. Time magazine noted that the Poitier character "is not only the white man's boss, but is his best friend, and is at all times his superior, possessing greater intelligence, courage, understanding, warmth and general adaptability." Variety said the film was "a milestone in the history of screen in its presentation of an American Negro."[3] The London Sunday Times said the film was "splendidly directed" by Ritt.[5]

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."[3]

Cassavetes also won acclaim for his portrayal, which resembled that of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954).[3] The Cassavetes character 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."[3]

The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called Edge of the City an "ambitious little film" and "at times close to some sort of fair articulation of the complexities of racial brotherhood." In one scene in which they have lunch at the river, "the attitudes of the young fellows—the white man with terrors in his mind and the Negro with cordial disposition to be as generous with his friendship as with food—are swiftly and trenchantly established in this little scene and the pattern of deep devotion in their subsequent comradeship is prepared." At those times, Crowther said, Edge of the City was a "sharp and searching film." But more often, he said, Aurthur and Ritt "have let their drama fall too patly into the pattern and the lingo of an imitative television show—a television show imitating the film On the Waterfront."[6]

Box office

MGM delayed release of the film because it was uneasy with the racial theme. However, the film was released after receiving rave reviews from preview audiences.[3]

The film was not a commercial success. It did not play in the Southern United States, and was refused by many theater managers because of its depiction of an interracial relationship.[5] According to MGM records the film earned rentals of $360,000 in the US and Canada and $400,000 elsewhere resulting in a loss of $125,000.[1]


Los Angeles Times critic Dennis Lim, writing in 2009, described Edge of the City and Something of Value (1957) as "variations on an early Poitier specialty, the black-white buddy movie, the most vivid 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.[7]

One history of African-Americans in film, 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." 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."[8]


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. Crowther, Bosley. "New York Times: Easy Living". The New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  3. Goudsouzian, Aram (2003). Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 117–122. ISBN 978-0-8078-2843-4.
  4. Bond, Jeff; Lukas Kendall (2003). Leonard Rosenman. "The Cobweb/Edge of the City". Film Score Monthly (CD insert notes). Culver City, California, U.S.A. 6 (14): 23.
  5. Jackson, Carlton (1994). Picking Up the Tab: The Life and Movies of Martin Ritt. Popular Press. pp. 40–41. ISBN 978-0-87972-672-0.
  6. Crowther, Bosley (January 30, 1957). "Screen: On Brotherhood". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2009.
  7. Lim, Dennis (January 25, 2009). "Sidney Poitier's roles as a historical marker". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  8. Bogle, Donald (December 2001). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. Continuum (paperback ed.). p. 181. ISBN 978-0-8264-1267-6.
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