Director Martin Ritt
EDGE OF THE CITY B
USA (85 mi) 1957 d: Martin Ritt
Ritt’s biography claimed that he had acted in a hundred and fifty television productions and directed a hundred more before he ever directed a movie, now known for making films with a social conscience, featuring characters who are underdogs, victims of racism or sexism or workers exploited by capitalism, all coming from diverse backgrounds, quietly struggling to overcome their unfortunate circumstances. Curious about exploring the American landscape, one uncommon aspect of his films invites viewers to identify with the growing awareness of his central characters, often making it difficult and challenging, yet this collaborative experience can be inspiring. Often labeled a political filmmaker, Ritt would dismiss that, expressing a primary concern for providing authenticity in capturing how people truly live, showing great empathy for minorities or the disenfranchised, celebrating the multiplicity of America. Ritt got his start working with the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal theater company that provided jobs for struggling artists during the Great Depression. Often linked with filmmaker and theater director Elia Kazan, both children of immigrants coming from impoverished neighborhoods in New York, working together in the New York-based Group Theatre, which shaped their personal philosophy as well as their working method, both pioneers of the American acting technique taught by Konstantin Stanislavski, otherwise known as method acting, bringing a more naturalistic style to the screen, with Ritt directing 13 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances, including three that won Academy Awards, Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas in Hud (1963), though it’s Paul Newman’s blustery performance that we remember, while Sally Field memorably won for NORMA RAE (1979). Despite being from New York, Ritt was one of the most sensitive chroniclers of the American South. As early as 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating the Federal Theater Project, believing it was overrun with communists because their productions actively promoted racial integration (yes, that is correct, it must be the communists behind any idea of racial integration), with suggestions they also perpetuated an anti-capitalist agenda, cancelling all funding for the project in 1939. Ritt’s affiliation with the Federal Theater would profoundly affect his career, as he was blacklisted by the television industry in 1952 during the heyday of McCarthyism, though never named by any of the testifying witnesses, but his name was mentioned in a right-wing newsletter called Counterattack, a publication formed by three former FBI agents, alleging that Ritt helped Communist Party-affiliated union locals in New York stage their annual holiday show, also claiming he raised money for the Russian war relief in a Madison Square Garden theatrical production, while a Syracuse grocer accused Ritt of donating money to Communist China in 1951. Unable to work in the television industry, Ritt earned a living as an acting instructor at the Actors Studio cofounded by Kazan for a period of five years.
In the 50’s when Hollywood was converting to color films in an attempt to distinguish itself from television, Ritt continued to make films in black and white, including this film and Paris Blues (1961), extending even into the mid 60’s. By the time Ritt got his start directing films, the industry itself was losing money, some of it due to television, but more significantly, one thinks, is the impact of the Hollywood blacklist removing such substantial talent from the overall talent pool while fueling suspicions that Hollywood was under siege from subversive elements, not exactly a walking advertisement for family entertainment. Perhaps because of this, a door opened for Ritt, who was the recommendation of producer Walter Susskind, as the film is a Robert Alan Aurthur adaptation of a live Philco Television Playhouse drama in 1955 entitled A Man Is Ten Feet Tall, which also starred Poitier in the same role, who was himself facing scrutiny from HUAC, forcing him to sign a document repudiating certain “undesirables,” namely black actors Canada Lee and Paul Robeson (who had already been blacklisted) if he wished to continue working in the industry. It was only the intervention of both Susskind and Aurthur that spared him the indignity. So the film is a milestone, an early example of social consciousness. Both Ritt and Kazan were masters of location shooting and both were considered superior teachers of actors, known for drawing out exceptional performances, where they also integrated local inhabitants into the scenes, adding to the overall sense of realism and authenticity in their work. This film combines the talents of two legends in the business, Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, though neither was accomplished at the time, coming early in their careers, where it’s a treat to see them work together “before” they became who we know them to be. While Poitier made a great impact in his first film, the incendiary Joseph L. Mankiewicz drama No Way Out (1950), one of the first films to deal honestly and realistically with racism in America, here he’s much more authentic and believable, seen doing dance steps in his living room, adding more swagger to his character than we usually see, embracing life for all that it offers, while this was only the second feature film to star Cassavetes, working mostly in television dramas before that, a method actor who was already conducting his own acting workshops, viewed as deeply troubled and conflicted throughout, carrying an unseen burden on his shoulders. Unfortunately, the storyline so closely resembles Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), examining the lives of blue collar dockworkers on the corrupt New York City waterfront, it all but dwarfs this smaller feature, towering over it in cultural impact, sweeping most of the major Academy Awards, leaving this in its shadow. While it’s not nearly as powerful, or influential, it is an early example of an interracial friendship onscreen and a sophisticated exposé of racism, with the focus on Axel North (an edgy Cassavetes), a lone drifter looking for a job, immediately exploited by his hard-edged supervisor Charlie Malik (Jack Warden) who extorts part of his salary while mocking and criticizing everything he does. In contrast, Tommy Tyler (Poitier), the only black supervisor, is much more likable, taking him under his wing and showing him the ropes, though it’s easy to see why, as Malik keeps all the workers for himself, creating a situation where Tyler supervises nearly no one. We quickly realize why, as Malik is a vile racist who feels threatened by Tyler’s presence on the docks. A black supervisor was extremely rare in that day and age with openly racist working conditions, where blacks were explicitly barred from most unions, or required to pay kickbacks to get in, with whites controlling both access to operating equipment and the more skilled positions well into the 70’s until court rulings on the 1964 Civil Rights Act legislation forced the unions to open up (Black longshoremen and the fight for equality in an 'anti-racist ...).
Right from the outset the film features a dissonant musical score by Leonard Rosenman that can be jarring, taking viewers on an emotional rollercoaster more suggestive of a thriller, accentuating boldly dynamic highs and lows that have a way of waking up viewers who aren’t paying attention, ratcheting up the decibels, while highlighting all the emotional turmoil underneath this unorthodox journey. With screen titles by Saul Bass, much of the film presents the everyday realities of the two men, with Tyler much more open and easy-going with an engaging personality, who’s maturity suggests he’s more comfortable in his skin, while Axel is a tough nut to crack, alienated and overly defensive, hiding secrets from everyone, calling home to his parents in Gary, Indiana, but then refuses to utter a word. While there’s a damaged element to his character, Axel accepts Tyler’s open invitations to his home, meeting his wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) and infant son, and tough as nails mother-in-law (Estelle Hemsley), while Tyler also encourages him to get closer to Ellen (Kathleen Maguire), a white teacher who supervises after school children’s activities, including Tyler’s son. These dinners together suggest an ease about everyday life where race simply doesn’t matter, instead a budding friendship paves the way for deeper concerns. While Tyler enjoys playing matchmaker, Axel is more disgruntled, revealing the source of his inner anxiety over drinks at a bar, suggesting the only person he ever loved was his older brother, who did everything better than he did, immensely popular and easy to praise, where even a kid brother was in awe, but everything changed after a road accident left his brother killed with Axel at the wheel, forever feeling guilty afterwards, losing his father’s respect, where nothing he ever does is good enough. As it turns out, he enlisted into the Army, but deserted after he was relentlessly hounded by a Sergeant, where he’s been on the run ever since. But rather than turn away in horror, Axel is embraced by this black family, standing in for the brother he lost, making him feel accepted. Tyler urges Axel to stand up to Malik and his bullying tactics, suggesting there are men and there are lower forms, where he can’t let the lower forms push him into being anything less than the man he inherently is, and if he can do that he will be “ten feet tall.” The relationship between Poitier and Ruby Dee is especially good (appearing in five films together), where their marriage is a happy one, as there’s extraordinary closeness between them, recurring again a few years later when they work together in A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961). Despite their best efforts, Axel remains all mixed up inside, fearful of being exposed, where there are underlying implications that he’s a closeted homosexual, but none of that materializes onscreen, instead his treatment on the docks resembles his Army experience, as Malik continually rides Axel, knowing he is on the lam, taking full advantage of his powerlessness, treating him with contempt, warning him to stay away from Tyler, basically getting under his last nerve. Taunted into a fight, using bailing hooks as weapons, Tyler quickly intervenes and puts an end to this nonsense, protecting his friend, but that doesn’t stop Malik who then comes after him instead, breaking out into a battle royale, with the other workers holding back Axel, all watching with particular interest, filmed as if it’s wild animals in a caged match. The senseless cruelty of it all is hard to miss, especially in contrast with Tyler’s decency, but the vitriol of hatred drives the viciousness of the battle, leading to tragic ends, which feels foreshadowed and preordained, yet leaves viewers emotionally devastated nonetheless. The tragedy is extended over a lengthy duration, never more poignant than Ruby Dee’s defiant realization of just what occurred, becoming overly theatrical, perhaps, by the end, but essential and necessary, striking a raw nerve. In keeping with that display of racial animus, theaters in the American South refused to screen this film due to the presence of a black lead actor, though a decade later, with Poitier playing a softspoken and “perfect Negro” in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967), bringing with him a litany of extraordinary professional achievements while displaying reassuring qualities that the white South could accept and embrace. Unfortunately, this regional dynamic created during the Confederacy still has overriding political issues with racial division at the heart of it.