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A hard-hitting urban drama filmed on the docks of the New York City waterfront, Edge of the City (1957) is a key film of the fifties for several reasons. First and foremost, it dealt with issues of race, which were rarely addressed in Hollywood films of this period (Stanley Kramer's Home of the Brave (1949) was an early exception). The film was adapted for the screen by Robert Alan Arthur from his television play, A Man is Ten Feet Tall, and focuses on Axel North (John Cassavetes), a guilt-ridden dock worker who feels responsible for his brother's accidental death. A black co-worker (Sidney Poitier) tries to draw Axel out of his depression but their friendship is jeopardized by Charles Malik (Jack Warden), a violent racist whose sadistic behavior brings about the film's tragic denouement.
Edge of the City marked the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, a former actor with Elia Kazan in New York's Group Theatre and a successful theatre and television director before he was blacklisted for past Communist affiliations in 1951. Due to the efforts of former Warner Brothers press agent turned producer David Susskind, Ritt's career was resurrected with Edge of the City and marked the beginning of a long, highly acclaimed film career which included Best Director Oscar® nominations for Hud (1963) and Norma Rae (1979).
At the same time, Sidney Poitier, cast in a supporting role in Edge of the City (he played the same role in Arthur's stage play), was on the cusp of major stardom and would earn an Academy Award® nomination the following year for his performance in The Defiant Ones (1958), directed by Stanley Kramer. Like Ritt, Poitier's political affiliations were under investigation during the fifties and his career could just as easily have been derailed without the considerable influence of playwright Arthur.
In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier recalls that prior to appearing in A Man is Ten Feet Tall, he was questioned by an NBC executive about his relationships with certain "undesirables" who said, 'You know there are those who feel that there are some dangerous people in this country. According to our information, you happen to know some of those dangerous people.'
'Who are these people - these dangerous people - that I'm supposed to know?'
'You worked with a man named Canada Lee for instance.'
'Yes, I did.' (By this time Canada Lee was dead.)
'You also know a man named Paul Robeson. As a matter of fact, you attended a salute for Robeson held at the Golden Gate Ballroom.'
'That is correct.'
'You spoke in a theatrical sketch that was in praise of Paul Robeson.'
And so he itemized a list of charges against me that questioned my loyalty. He put it to me that unless I repudiated those charges, I would not be able to play the part."
After agonizing over his dilemma, Poitier put his career on the line and refused to sign. "And then Arthur," Poitier recalled, "single-handedly, set in motion a colossal effort on the part of the creative forces (producers, writers, director) aimed at bringing about a workable compromise between the network, the advertising agency, and the Philo Company on one side, and me and my agent on the other." The resulting agreement allowed Poitier to accept the role in the television production of A Man is Ten Feet Tall without having to sign any repudiation of Robeson or Lee.
The play turned out to be a personal triumph for the actor and lead to his casting by Ritt in the film version. In fact, he was the only principal member of the original company who appeared in Edge of the City: Don Murray was replaced by John Cassavetes, Martin Balsam was replaced by Jack Warden, Hilda Simms was replaced by Ruby Dee, and director Robert Mulligan was replaced by Martin Ritt. Despite the changes in cast and crew, the film was universally praised by critics; Variety called it "a courageous, thought-provoking and exacting film....a milestone in the history of the screen in its presentation of an American Negro."
It was during the filming of Edge of the City that Poitier was signed for his next project; a controversial drama about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya entitled Something of Value (1957) with Richard Brooks at the helm. (Poitier had previously worked for him in Blackboard Jungle, 1955.)
Producer: David Susskind
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Robert Alan Arthur (also script A Man Is Ten Feet Tall)
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Film Editing: Sidney Meyers
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: John Cassavetes (Axel North), Ruby Dee (Lucy Tyler), Jack Warden (Charles Malik), Sidney Poitier (Tommy Tyler), Robert F. Simon (Mr. Nordmann), Val Avery (Brother), John Kellogg (Detective), William A. Lee (Davis), Kathleen Maguire (Ellen Wilson), Ruth White (Mrs. Nordmann).
BW-86m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford