Edge of the City: Friendship, Cowardice and Racism

by Robert Bellissimo 

Edge Of The City (1957) was expanded from the 1955 live-for-televison play, “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall”, which was specifically written for Sidney Poitier. It broke ground at the time for depicting a close friendship between a black man and a white man. Integration was a hot topic then, and the film couldn’t be shown in the south of the United States. Although that limited its marketability, thankfully, MGM produced it anyways.

The film begins with Axel North (John Cassavetes) arriving in New York City in desperate need of employment. He has a secret that he doesn’t want to share with anyone until he has to, and is suffering emotionally from being alienated from his family. Axel has a contact at a dock in Harlem where he can get a job as a dockworker. His contact Charlie Malick (Jack Warden), winds up being a vicious bully, and takes a percentage of his pay in order to work there. We come to learn that bullies are the type of people Axel has always had to deal with.

At the dock, Axel meets Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) and the two become good friends. Tommy supervises a gang of dockworkers and eventually gets Axel to leave Charlie’s gang to work for him. Having a white man work for a black man was new territory in American cinema then. Tommy proves himself to be intelligent, funny, loving, a good mentor, and the two become best friends. The chemistry between Poitier and Cassavetes is beautiful to watch, and the two became friends in real life.

What we later discover is that Axel has deserted the army, and the police are after him. He also was driving a car with his brother in the passenger seat, and got into an accident. His brother died, and his father blamed him for it. 

Bullying is a central theme in the film. Axel was bullied in the army, by his father, and now by Charlie. As a result, he can’t stand up for himself and his first instinct is to run, instead of facing his problems head on. It’s fascinating to see John Cassavetes play this role. He’s so convincing, as this somewhat shy, timid man who can’t stand up for himself. In real life, Cassavetes was the complete opposite, and he never played another role like this one.

Tommy is married to Lucy (Ruby Dee). She tells Axel that Tommy doesn’t have many close friends. This is undoubtedly a subtle nod to facing racial prejudice at work, as one of the few black men who work there and the only one who is a supervisor. Charlie also makes racist remarks towards him throughout the film. He is jealous of Tommy, and wants to destroy him.

As the tensions between Axel and Charlie build, so does the threat of violence. Tommy is always ready to defend Axel, which ultimately leads to his death, as he gets into a fight with Charlie, and is stabbed in the back with a baling hook. Since Axel has often chosen the route of cowardice in his life, he decides to yet again run, and not tell the police that Charlie killed Tommy.

A powerful scene erupts between Axel, Lisa and Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire), who recently began dating Axel. Lisa is repulsed by Axel for not telling the police what happened, and throws the money that Axel offers her at him, as she says “take your white man’s money”. Lisa clearly knows Tommy must have been killed for the color of his skin.

One thing I love about the film is that the arc that Axel has in the film does not come easy. It takes until the end of the film for him to confront Charlie, leading to a brutal fight, and Axel taking Charlie in to the police for his crime. Fighting Charlie is not simply about the conflict between the men throughout the film. It’s about facing all the people Axel has been bullied by in his life, and finally standing up for himself.

It’s unfortunate that Tommy had to die for Axel to finally face his demons, but hard lessons come in hard ways in life.

The film was shot in Harlem, New York and the location shooting adds to the grittiness of the story. The film was directed by Martin Ritt, who had been blacklisted in Hollywood. This was the first film he directed, and he went on to make more powerful films that often dealt with social issues and working class characters.

The screenplay was by Robert Alan Aurther, who later went on to write for the television series “East Side, West Side (1963)”, which unfortunately only lasted for one season. It was a powerful television show following social workers in New York. It’s no surprise to see him go on to write for this show, which also explored social issues. His last screenplay was “All That Jazz (1979)”, which he co-wrote with Bob Fosse, which to me is one of the greatest American films of all time.

In 2023, “Edge Of The City”, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It certainly deserves it’s place in the registry, and it still holds up well today.

Edge of the City is available to rent on YouTube and Apple TV.

Leave a Reply