Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Edge of the City

TCM's star for today's installment of Summer Under the Stars is Sidney Poitier. Some of today's films I've recommended before; one that I haven't and would really like to mention is Edge of the City, which airs overnight at 12:15 AM. (If you're further west, it's not overnight, but rather earlier this evening.)

Poitier is only second-billed; the star is actually John Cassavetes in one of his earliest movies. He plays Axel Nordmann, a man who somewhat mysteriously shows up around the docks one night, looking for a job. The jobs of course don't come open until morning, so Axel sleeps outside the office and gets spotted in the morning by Tommy (Poitier). Tommy's an outgoing man, and willing to strike up a friendship with Axel, while Axel is rather more guarded and gets assigned to work not with Tommy, but with Charles (Jack Warden). Apparently Charles knows a bit about Axel's past, and is part of the racket to get people like Axel their jobs on the waterfront, and Axel has to pay protection money to Charles.

Tommy thinks this is unjust, and strikes up a deeper friendship with Axel. This is something that Charlie really doesn't like, partly because he doesn't want to lose his control over Alex, but also because he's racist and doesn't like a black guy like Tommy. Tommy, for his part, continues to get gloser to Axel, tries to get Axel assigned to work under him, and even tries to set up Axel and a blind date and go out with Axel, the girl, and his wife (Ruby Dee). Axel is still guarded, and still trying to patch up his relationship with his mother, whom he loves, but from whom he had to run away as his father no longer accepted him.

You can see coming from a mile away that there's going to be a boiling over in the conflict between Tommy and Charlie, and that this is presumably going to help bring a resolution to the conflicts in Axel's life, but in a movie like Edge of the City, part of the reason for watching is seeing how the characters get there. Edge of the City achieves that quite well, mostly down to the strong acting from all of the leads.

The only real problem with the movie is Tommy, and that's not Sidney Poitier's fault. If you've seen the piece on Poitier that TCM runs quite a bit, you'll recall film professor Donald Bogle talking about how Poitier had to play the "perfect" black man; the one sort of black person that could appeal to white audiences. That sort of sharply-drawn character wouldn't be problematic if you need your characters to be archetypes, but when you need more nuanced characters, such a lack of drawing the character's opposite side can be grating. Tommy at times comes across as too perfect and too interested in Axel for no good reason. With the state of race relations as they were in the late 1950s, I can't help but think the real-life Tommy would be closer to the character of Ruby Dee's husband in The Incident, or at least a bit closer to what Poitier played in The Defiant Ones.

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