Edge of the City (1957)

Edge of the City (1957)

“Look, T — I’m trouble!”

A troubled young army deserter (John Cassavetes) who is being bullied by a vicious stevedore (Jack Warden) befriends a fellow worker (Sidney Poitier) and starts hanging out with Poitier’s wife (Ruby Dee) and their friend (Kathleen Maguire). Poitier tries to help Cassavetes regain his confidence and stand up to Warden — but tragedy soon strikes.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Friendship
  • John Cassavetes Films
  • Martin Ritt Films
  • Racism and Race Relations
  • Ruby Dee Films
  • Sidney Poitier Films
  • Waterfront

Martin Ritt made his impressive cinematic directorial debut with this adaptation of Robert Alan Arthur’s television play A Man is Ten Feet Tall. We’re not at all sure where things will head as we see young Cassavetes enter the dockyards looking for work:

When he finally encounters the man whose name he’s been told to give as a contact (Warden’s “Charlie Malick”), we can tell that Cassavetes has a rough history which we’ll presumably learn more about:

We’re especially kept in suspense when Cassavetes befriends Poitier, and ends up being taken under his wing:

In a most refreshing change of pace (at least for films of this era), Poitier and Cassavetes develop a meaningful cross-racial friendship, with Poitier listening closely as Cassavetes gradually shares details about his past.

Soon Poitier is encouraging Cassavetes to take risks with dating, and introduces him to a friend of his wife’s (Maguire):

Things take a dark turn, however, when Warden — a pathological bully — decides to push an issue to its limits, at which point Cassavates must make a challenging decision. To that end, many have pointed out the similarities between this film and On the Waterfront (1954), with both taking place on the docks of New York and featuring a protagonist who must decide whether to “squeal” or not — however, they are different enough to watch and consider on their own merits, and this one, too, remains worth a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • John Cassavetes as Axel
  • Sidney Poitier as Tommy
  • Ruby Dee as Lucy
  • Fine use of location shooting
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a good and unusual show.


  • Good Show


2 thoughts on “Edge of the City (1957)

  1. Agreed, must-see – as a noteworthy debut by director Ritt. As per my 9/18/21 post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “There are the men – and then there are the lower forms. And a guy’s gotta make a choice. You go with the men and you’re ten feet tall. You go with the lower forms and you are down in the slime.”

    ‘Edge of the City’ (1957): With this arresting film debut, director Martin Ritt established his career-long passion for social causes (as revealed with ‘Sounder’, ‘Norma Rae’, ‘The Front’, etc.). Both he and screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur dealt with race relations in their work a number of times. This story had originally been produced as a tv drama (‘A Man is Ten Feet Tall’) in 1955.

    (Aurthur mostly wrote for tv in the ’50s – but his final credit was as co-author of Bob Fosse’s ‘All That Jazz’.)

    Sidney Poitier (who had appeared in the tv version) returned here as Tommy Tyler – a longshoreman who befriends a new worker, Axel North (John Cassavetes). Though seemingly benevolent, North is nevertheless taciturn and on his guard. Being a straight shooter, Tyler forms an easy camaraderie with North. But they both have to deal with Charlie Malick (Jack Warden) – about as racist as they come. Being devious to his core, Malick discovers something he can easily hold over North.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same. The story is set in NYC in the ’50s – but, even though language patterns have now moved on from what they once were (some of what is spoken here now sounds quaint), racism is still very much with us. No doubt it always will be. Films like this may ‘preach to the choir’ but, if they don’t eradicate racism, they’re still valuable as ammunition that can keep the wolf from the door and stand witness to darkened hearts.

    Poitier is his usual sturdy self. But each time I see Cassavetes, I can’t help but see him as Guy in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Not that he’s a one-note performer, but his work as Guy is so signature that seeing Cassavetes anywhere else is like watching Guy before he went to the dark side. Co-starring as Poitier’s wife is Ruby Dee (with solid presence); Cassavetes’ provisional gf is played by little-known Kathleen Maguire.

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