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Break through film
on March 27, 2011
"Edge of the City" is one of the first black and white buddy films. Prior to this, blacks and whites in films were antagonists or master/slave. But the treatment emerged in 1955 on TV when such classic live dramas as "Studio One", "Playhouse 90" and "Philco Television Playhouse" dealt with far more liberal topics. The original TV drama was written by Robert Alan Arthur ("Grand Prix", "All That Jazz") and starred Sidney Poitier and Don Murray. TV Producer David Susskind ("The Glass Menagerie", "Eleanor and Franklin") brought it to the big screen, keeping Poitier but replacing Warden with John Cassavetes, and Susskind hired blacklisted director Martin Ritt.
Poitier (1927 - ) had been in several films in the early 50s and in 1955 "Blackboard Jungle" was a big hit and propelled him into stardom, earning him the role in the TV program and the subsequent film. AFI ranks him #22 in the list of Greatest Male Stars.
John Cassavetes (1929-89) was a pioneer of the cinema verite genre, as an actor and a director. He's probably best known for his Oscar nominated role in "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) or as the husband in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), but these were the roles he took to make the money he needed to produce the films he wanted to make, such as "Faces" (1968), "Husbands" (1970), "A Woman Under the Influence", and "Gloria" (1980).
Jack Warden (1920-2006) plays a racist dock worker who is blackmailing Cassavetes. He was twice nominated for an Oscar ("Heaven Can Wait", "Shampoo") and three times for an Emmy ("Brian's Song", "Crazy Like a Fox"). He made more than 50 films between 1950 and 2000, but I remember him best in "Twelve Angry Men" (1957).
Ruby Dee (1924 - 2014) plays Poitier's wife. She is probably the most prolific Black actress in Hollywood history, having made more than 50 films and as many TV appearances. TV viewers will remember her best as Mother Freemantle from "The Stand" (1994) and movie goers for "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961), also with Poitier. She was nominated for an Oscar for "American Gangster" (2007), won an ACE for "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962) and was nominated for an Emmy 6 times, winning once ("Decoration Day" in 1990).
One of the key elements of the film, in addition to being the first black/white buddy film is that it portrayed a black middle class family in a wholesome manner. Black families were rarely depicted prior to this film, and more often than not, were connected with the old stereotypes.
In 1957 the top grossing films were "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Peyton Place", "Sayonara", "Old Yeller" and "Raintree County". The Oscars went to "Bridge" (Picture, Director, Actor), "Three Faces of Eve" (Actress), and "Sayonara" (Supporting Actor and Actress). Other notable films released that year included "12 Angry Men" (with Jack Warden), "The Enemy Below", Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd", "Fear Strikes Out", "Heaven Knows Mr. Allison", "The Joker is Wild", "Pal Joey", Kubrick's "Paths of Glory", Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries", "Sweet Smell of Success", and "Witness for the Prosecution". "Edge of the City" was the only film that year to feature a black leading actor.
This is a good film. The black and white photography is crisp and often intimate (a style Cassavetes would perfect in later years). Martin Ritt keeps the action moving, and the performances from everyone are stellar. If the film has any fault it is the musical score that pounds at you to the point of annoyance. More than anything else this appears to be a carryover from the TV production and possibly a result of composer Leonard Rosenman (1924-2008) philosophy - "I try to enter directly into the movie's plot"
The film was a critical success but failed at the box office and received no major award nominations in the US. But the following year, Poitier co-starred with Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones", and this film not only did well at the box office but it achieved a slew of awards and nominations. One can't help but imagine the "Edge of the City" set the stage for "The Defiant Ones" reception.
This film definitely deserves a look, not merely because it's a good film, but because it represents a breakthrough in many respects. Poitier, Cassavetes, Warden, and Lee were all launched to new levels in their careers. Martin Ritt got the chance to re-launch his career and went on to greater success. And more importantly, this film was a lynchpin for the improvement in the portrayal of blacks in film.