It was my fight.
Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes) only ever loved one person his entire life: his brother. When he died, an existence that already didn’t quite make sense suddenly made none. So, he ran away, joined the army, and sought to “prove himself” as his cop father always used to say every man needed to do. That ultimately failed too, though. Now he’s moving city to city under a different name (North), pretending to be friends with strangers to receive work without much scrutiny if he’s willing to give them a cut of his paycheck. It’s a strictly transactional living with his head constantly on a swivel whenever it’s not kept low enough to ensure no one looks too closely. There’s never been much room to make any friends.
Adapted and expanded by Robert Alan Aurthur from his own teleplay, Edge of the City provides exactly that by way of Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier, reprising his role from that early production). This is a man who exudes energy and charisma—the kind that makes him more enemies than friends being a Black man in a white world. He doesn’t care, though. He knows who he is and he’s not afraid to let others know who they are by comparison if they give him reason to call them out. Lending Axel a helping hand one morning isn’t therefore out of the ordinary. He saw someone sleeping on the tracks and figured he was looking for work. Why not wake him up and steer him in the right direction?
Axel thanks Tommy for his assistance, but he already has his costly “in” by way of Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). This is a man Tommy calls slime—what better way is there to describe someone who revels in turning a profit off the exploitation of others? As such, the two are obviously not close. Charlie’s a racist who doesn’t believe Tommy should have a job let alone one as his equal running a team of stevedores in the same railyard. Tommy’s a pragmatist unwilling to suffer fools and thus makes a point to smile and chide Charlie whenever he’s able. Axel is suddenly caught in the middle as a result. Charlie vouched for him, but Tommy offers a better way. And choosing the latter makes the former unbearable.
Aurthur’s original title “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall” stems from a conversation Tommy has with Axel in an attempt to remind him that nothing is more important than the confidence in one’s own self-actualization. One could say that’s easier said and done for a father of young children who’s happily married (Ruby Dee‘s Lucy) and entrenched in a well-paying job, but nothing is easier for a Black man in the 1950s. That he’s living his best life with a smile on his face says more than anything men like Charlie could say as they put the screws into the less fortunate. Hearing Tommy speak those words makes Axel even believe they might be true. Despite all he’s done and all he’s suffered, maybe a future still exists.
That revelation is what drives Edge of the City forward. Whether Tommy’s ability to get him to come out of his shell despite everything he might lose if someone found out who he was or a sweetly funny matchmaker bid to hook him up with Lucy’s friend Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), Axel is becoming a real person again. We’re watching his self-esteem rise to the point where he’s even willing to stand-up to Charlie when the truth is inevitably used to blackmail him. And it’s through that evolution that the tension at work rises to a fever pitch due to the long-held rivalry that Axel and Tommy’s friendship has exacerbated. Because Charlie doesn’t care about Axel either way. He cares that hurting Axel allows him to hurt Tommy too.
It all leads to an effective climax wherein a physical fight commences. Like he did the day his brother died, Axel is left unscathed as two immovable forces collide towards destruction. Everything I loved about the film abruptly went out the window the second this battle ended, though, because it turned a Black man’s sacrifice into a lesson for a white man to grow. That lesson may have been heartfelt and authentic in its portrayal when Axel and Tommy were shown thick as thieves in an era that frowned upon interracial friendships (the studio supposedly capped the budget at half a million dollars because they didn’t think they could sell it in the south), but it’s rendered unforgiveable in an aftermath appearing to gloss over its true meaning.
The “slime” can’t win. No matter what happened or what he risked, Tommy lived to ensure men like Charlie didn’t get to do what they did without at least making their villainy known. Nothing he said would ever make Charlie feel the shame necessary to change his ways, but it reminded the others of the difference between right and wrong. It reminded Axel that relationships and accountability mattered. To let him walk away from what occurs as though his salvation is more important than the message would have been crime, so kudos to Aurthur and director Martin Ritt for pushing forward after the white man’s happy ending. Axel might need a bit more coaxing to let his own shame ignite what needs to be done, but he does get there.
And just like that a film I really enjoyed turned away from a steep narrative cliff to get back onto the road towards a bittersweet and dignified end wherein a man with everything to lose finally puts himself on the line for someone who deserved better than he got. Cassavetes is great in the role, forever embattled in an internal wrestling match with the man he never believed he could become. A chip on his shoulder courtesy of a disciplined childhood that left him fearing he’d never be enough makes it difficult to accept Tommy’s kindness as a gift—that someone could give unconditionally. It’s Poitier’s Tommy who therefore serves as the glue keeping things together, his larger-than-life demeanor reminding us that empathy is worth more than gold.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.