Edge of the City was Martin Ritt’s remarkably assured directorial debut. Beautifully poised and paced, it’s one of the most mystically homoerotic films of the 1950s, evoking profound alliances across race, class and sexuality that broadly reflect Ritt’s own persecution at the hands of the Hollywood blacklist. Written by Robert Alan Aurthur, and based on his television play A Man is Ten Feet Tall, the story essentially details a burgeoning and beautiful friendship between Tommy Tyler, a New York dock worker played by Sidney Poitier, and Axel Nordmann, a closeted gay man played by John Cassavetes, in two of these actors’ earliest leading roles.
Edge of the City is also, as the title suggests, a portrait of a city – one of a series of late noirs that were obsessed with mapping the expanse of the city in fresher and more jagged ways. These crime films released in the late 50s turned their attention to undisclosed elements of urban life, and often adopted a more documentary style, reflecting the growing influence of Italian neorealism. Ritt’s film takes place at the edge of classical noir and this grittier urban style – every scene feels slightly improvised, and the camera always seems somewhat hand-held. While there is a clear narrative throughline, Ritt is more interested in moments than story, and just as interested in the relationship between his actors as between the characters. At times, this feels like a portrait of Poitier and Cassavetes’ friendship as much as fictional film, paving the way for Cassavetes’ own body of work, which started a couple of years later.
Ritt focuses all this naturalism on the New York docks, where Tommy and Axel meet for the first time. From the moment they cross paths, Ritt evinces an incredible sensitivity to the way that men talk, move, fight, walk and dance. All the dock scenes appear to be shot on location, with extras drawn straight from the street, with the exception of Tommy’s nemesis, Charlie Malick, played by Jack Warden, whose racism sets some of the major plot points in motion. While Ritt’s involvement in leftist and communist circles was a matter of conjecture at the time, his depiction of this friendship leaves no doubt of his sympathies, since it’s one of the most natural and dignified visions of working-class solidarity filmed in America this decade.
Part of the dynamic of the friendship stems from how differently these two men interact with the world. Tommy is an extrovert, sharing his views with Axel as soon as they meet. Axel, however, is much more circumspect – his character and motivations take more time to emerge, which throws all the small details of the docks into relief as he gradually gets to know Tommy in this shared space. Since the friendship starts at work, Axel is able to deflect discussion of his private life for some time, turning the first act into a portrait of a relationship we rarely see depicted with this much nuance in American cinema – the work friendship. Ritt is alive to the ways that men, in particular, can build a more reparative masculinity through shared labour, depicting the docks as a place where Tommy and Axel can relearn what it means to be a man. The sheer act of working together gives them an unspoken bond, an openness to each other’s differences, that makes their subsequent friendship more open too.
This friendship makes Edge of the City one of the great blue-collar films (it must have been an influence on Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar). For the first act, we see this blue-collar world through Tommy’s eyes, from the perspective of a black man staying buoyant in a white working-class environment. Tommy is Axel’s boss, and appoints himself as Axel’s mentor as well, sharing his wisdom about the job, the city and hardship more generally, as if prescient that Alex is marginal too, despite being white. Here, as throughout the film, Ritt is acutely sensitive to the pitfalls of black stereotypes – it would be so easy for Tommy’s power over Axel to turn into mere role reversal, just as it would be easy for Tommy turn into a mystically empowered black man and thus succumb to the magical negro tropes common at the time.
Instead, there’s something more subtle at play here. Time and again, Tommy communes with Axel by showing him to stay buoyant as a marginal person, as if acknowledging that Axel is marginal in a way that he can’t articulate. Both characters are always shot against fractured fragments of the city, which always appears as a marginal space in the background of their shared dock scenes. One of their first work traditions is to have lunch in the most peripheral parts of the dock they can find – one day they’re on the top of a train carriage, another day they sit right on the tip of the dock itself, poised on a narrow precipice of space as they looking out into the bay. In this marginal space, Tommy declares, they’ve discovered “Freedomsville.”
Axel himself is also defined as marginal, cloistered and closeted from the beginning of the film, although it’s quite hard to know how to read these characteristics for the first two acts. Initially, it feels like he might be an iteration of the new “adolescent” character type that was starting to sweep American cinema in the wake of Rebel Without a Cause. In one of the earliest scenes, he phones his parents in Gary, Indiana, after not having spoken to them for some time. There’s clearly a rift between generations here – his father refuses to speak to him, his mother begs him to come home, and, when he hangs up, bemoans: “What did we do to him? What did we do to make him like this?” Yet this scene also evokes a silence that goes beyond mere adolescent angst, as Axel intones a false confession to his parents, pouring his heart out, while holding his hand over the receiver, so that they cannot make out his words.
This elliptical scene is also the most expository for some time, since Axel’s character remains quite emergent after this. The mystery of the film is largely the mystery of his intentions, and yet the revelation that he’s an army deserter never feels proportionate to his liminality, the way he seems to perpetually exist on the edge of things. Instead, I gradually sensed that Axel was a closeted homosexual, and that leaving the army was just one part of his tacit rejection of traditional masculine institutions. At first, I wondered if I was reading too much into the film, but I learned that this was indeed Ritt’s intention, and that he had to tread a fine line to get the censors to approve the film, splitting the difference between homoerotic and homosocial content more finely than just about any other film noir released during this era.
As a result, Axel’s sexuality is largely a matter of implication. We learn that the only person he ever loved was his brother, who he rhapsodises in the same terms Tommy uses to describe his wife, recalling that “sometimes we didn’t even have to talk to each other.” Conversely, he’s completely alienated from his own father, recollecting that “I could never talk to my old man. In my whole life, we probably said three things to each other – good morning, good night, and go to hell.” In any case, being an army deserter means he might as well be homosexual – this was the most dramatic secret that a man could openly admit to in a Hollywood film at this time, while desertion was still the most vivid way that the mainstream media could dramatise male shame. It’s apt that Axel’s hometown, his centre of shame, is also the name of a man – Gary, Indiana – that would in turn become the pen name of a prominent gay male writer forty years later. Watching Edge of the City, I wondered whether Gary Indiana had Axel’s story in mind when he settled on his nom de plume in the early 80s.
This latent homosexual desire makes for a beautiful and complex friendship with Tommy. To some extent, Tommy denies Axel’s inclinations by trying to set him up his friend Ellen Wilson, a teacher played by Kathleen Maguire. Ritt reserves some of his most dextrous directing for the subtle ways in which Axel displays his disinterest in Ellen, despite his equally strong desire not to offend Tommy. Axel first meets Ellen in a basketball court, a traditionally male domain, and from there indicates, in all kinds of subtle ways, that he sees her more as a friend. This trope is quite familiar to gay and straight audiences alike in the early 21st century, but it’s quite touching to see it play out in this more closeted mode, especially as Axel doesn’t quite seem to know his own mind, repeatedly trying and failing to love Ellen in deference to Tommy.
Yet Tommy doesn’t quite know his own mind either. He organises a double date at his house so that Axel and Ellen can have dinner with him and his wife Lucy, played by Ruby Dee. Despite chastising Axel when he doesn’t show enough attention to Ellen, Tommy peels off with him after dinner for cigars. Smoking, listening to music, they’re both caught off-guard by a gaze that lingers too long – so long that it takes us out of Hollywood convention and into a different kind of realism. And in many ways the film is this gaze – a beautiful portrait of male friendship in which one party yearns for more, and the other understands and empathises, even if they don’t quite reciprocate. It’s a vision of heterosexual and homosexual desire communing and living side by side, mediated through racial tolerance – a profoundly intersectional account of identity from a director who was repeatedly harangued and blacklisted for his own leftism.
Call it a romantic friendship, then, or a tribute to the romance of friendship, bathing everything in the film in an mystically emergent hush, since Tommy doesn’t exactly not reciprocate Axel’s feelings either. In fact, there’s something compensatory about the way Tommy insists upon setting Axel up – as if he has to work extra hard to deny the closer and quieter moments between them, which recur whenever women recede into the background. You might say that it’s an effort to genuinely envisage bisexuality, or the romance between a homosexual man and a bisexual man – or that it’s disinterested in labels altogether, instead envisaging a deep communion between working men that transcends both sexuality and race. There’s no vocabulary, at this time, for what Eve Sedgwick would call Axel’s shame consciousness, but Tommy can inchoately gesture towards it: “If you’re scared, you’re dead.”
No surprise, then, that the docks turn cruisey with only the slightest shift in inflection. We see this cruisiness most emphatically after Axel’s one big argument with Tommy, which he processes with a long, lingering, languorous walk along the river, followed by a burnished sequence that ends with him starting up at Tommy’s apartment window – a shot that is embedded somewhere deep within the closing act of William Friedkin’s Cruising, released in 1980. Yet the scene doesn’t end here, as Axel asks Tommy to join him for a continuation of the walk. This ends ends with his closest approximation to coming out, which occurs at the site most conspicuously shot on location. Peering over the edge of Mount Morris Park in Harlem (not yet renamed Marcus Garvey Park), his voice muffled by ambient noise, and bleached by ambient light, Axel describes a wandering yearning that suffuses his very soul.
As this coming-out walk attests, Edge of the City is fascinated by proximities and alliances that could only exist in movement at this point in time – whether through manic movement, fugitive movement, or a fluid combination of the two. Jazz provides that cruisey momentum for large stretches of the film, gathering black and white, straight and gay, into reparative trajectories that seem to continue right into Cassevetes’ own films. Some of these scenes could be taken straight from Cassavetes’ first couple of films, while his role as Axel must have fuelled his own directorial sympathy for marginal figures, people living deep in the shadows.
Yet Edge of the City never simply uses Tommy as a prop either – never subordinates him to a mirror for Axel to discover his own sexuality. Instead, that discovery exists beyond the horizon of the city, as does the racial equality that Tommy and Axel momentarily glimpse together. In the traumatic third act of the film, Charlie’s rage at Tommy gets the better of him. The two fight with grappling hooks, and Charlie ends up murdering Tommy, leaving his body dumped unceremoniously on a pile of crates while Axel is trapped behind a metal grate – and while all of the other dock workers look on, and then return to their job without uttering a single word.
This modern-day lynching is a rebuttal to any idealised version of white working-class men, insisting to the audience that proper working-class solidarity can only occur as part of a broader alliance across sexuality and race – as part of a reparative masculine project that we briefly glimpse through the most powerful source of movement in the film; namely, the movement of the film itself, as it grows ever lighter and more nimble on its feet. And Ritt uses this movement to set the audience a challenge in the closing scenes, which start with Axel deciding to return to his parents, and reconcile with their institutions, rather than speak out about Tommy’s death – in effect, to return to the closet, and from there deny racism exists.
Yet we now have an incredible scene in which Lucy, Tommy’s wife (now his widow) calls out Axel on his hypocrisy. She points out that fleeing New York, and refusing to “rat out” Charlie, means that he is adhering to a masculine code of honour that has brought him nothing but shame. She also insists that returning to institutions can only occur at the expense of black folk – and of black women in particular, the man collateral damage for the trauma of trying to envisage a cross-racial masculinity. This prompts Tommy into the fastest trajectory of the film – out of Lucy’s apartment, and onto the street, where he’s pursued by Ellen, who, in a more conventional film, would encourage him to leave both Lucy and Tommy behind for their love. Yet Lucy cannot do this, partly because it’s not that kind of film, and partly because Axel is homosexual. And so Ellen just reiterates Lucy’s advice – that Axel must act in some manner.
This ushers in the last scene of the film, which hangs suspended between two types of action. First, Axel tells the police that Charlie committed the crime, but it’s clear he can’t rely on them, since he heads down to the docks himself. Then, he seeks out Charlie, although he can’t be searching for straight-out revenge, since he’s also informed the cops, who are on their way. Instead, Axel seems to be searching for an answer, a masculine alliance, an intersectional politics, that can’t quite exist in his own time and space. After a brutal fight, he drags Charlie’s prone body (it’s not clear if Charlie is dead or alive) straight towards the camera, which in turn pans back as Axel looks directly at the audience, as the dock workers follow his defiant gaze.
In this final moment, Axel reaches towards the countercultural vocabulary of the next generation as a way of grieving Tommy and envisaging future alliances – a counterculture that Cassavetes would quickly embrace once he stepped behind the camera, as Axel seems to be yearning to do here. For Axel finally yearns for a confrontation with power that remains beyond the purview of the film – the edge of the city is a temporal as well as a spatial threshold, the fate of those marginal figures who exist on the cusp of generations, ahead of the old guard but without the quite achieving the ideological apparatus of the new guard. Ten years later, desertion would be seen as a radical gesture, a badge of pride for the counterculture – for now, it’s less certain of its destination, or even its meaning, existing, like the film, as a profound gesture of departure, a frustration with the outer limits of the present.