Edgy social drama with John Cassettes and Sidney Poitier as Axel North and Tommy Tyler. They’re co-workers at the docks. The boss, Charlie Malick (Jack Warden) is a bully and racist.
It’s immediately noticeable that this is very character-driven; Tommy is exuberant, sarcastic, and outgoing, while Axel is introverted and unassuming. Their jobs are no picnic, but once Tom gets Axel on his crew, things seem to go smoother. Like an ill wind, Malick keeps butting in. Soon the two buddies are fast friends, and Axel confides that he was responsible for his beloved brother’s death.
Anyway, Tom (‘T’) takes Axel to meet a girl, Ellen, Tom’s son’s teacher. Back at Tom’s with his wife, Lucy (Ruby Dee), and Ellen (Kathleen Maguire) mess with bongo drums and a hi-fi, while “dig this” and “daddy-o” are flying around. Again, because this is so well-drawn, both women are believable individuals–Ellen is as reserved as Axel–which explains why they’re suited to each other. Axel gets made by a guy at a club, but is able to disengage. Meanwhile, Tommy is certainly in the big brother match-maker role.
Next day at work, after more jerking around by Malick, he and Axel get in a fight; luckily T intervenes before there’s damage–from their deadly grappling hook tools. Time for date #2 with the double-daters. Axel and Ellen are definitely getting chummier.
Immediate problem next day. Malick found out about Axel’s former life (if he’s betrayed he could do big jail time), and says he’s going to take more out of his wages (he’s already getting skimmed). T tried to convince him that Malick is “nothing.” But to Axel every bully is his unloved dad. “A man has to prove himself before he’s loved.” That’s poignant. The other issue is that his army AWOL status–again the result of a domineering authority figure–dooms him to this vagabond existence.
This time he challenges Malick directly. The real beef is between Tommy and Malick. The fight scene is incredibly tense and realistic. After galantly letting Malick off the hook (literally true, but not so funny), he fatally stabs Tommy. The cops are pissed at the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil attitude of the ‘witnesses.’
Will Axel tell the story? Not right off. He knows that Tommy was fighting for him. What he does do is patch things up with his dad; he tells dad about the AWOL deal. Thankfully, dad’s immediately accepting and respectful. Maybe strengthened and comforted by that, he goes to Lucy.
He admits that he knows how Tommy got killed, and didn’t do anything about it. So when he offers her some dough, she tells him off “take your white man’s money!” Helen pleads with him to come clean. So, he march’s into the office next day and demands to talk to the detective who worked the case; now he has his fight with Malik. He definitely gets hammered, but has a last-minute counterattack: a great headlock. Kills the dude. That’s it, didn’t need to wait for the cops.
Such a great movie experience. Mythic, really. Axel is a tragic hero, facing a series of challenges, most of which he overcomes thanks to his mentor, Tommy. But Tommy, somewhat Christ-like, sacrifices himself to protect Axel; then Axel must face his nemesis, Malick, on his own. His redemption is completed by reuniting with his family, enduring Lucy’s anger, and ulimately avenging Tommy’s death (by overcoming his struggle to confront his fears).
It’s ultimately a tragic story because now Axel’s a murderer. He didn’t necessarily have to confront Malick at the end; but this is a story of what happens on the edge (literally) of civilization. The dockyards themselves are physically akin to a netherworld between civilization (of the city) and the unknown danger of the open sea.
The plot is very similar to 1951’s On The Waterfront. The main difference lies not in the events and images so much as the superb depictions of authentic characters (idiosyncratic in Poitier’s case), rather than types. The other unexpected and rewarding element is that, on the edge of the Civil Rights era, Poitier is not only one of the main characters, but is easily a stronger presence than Axel; that’s why the mentor/protege relationship works so well.
The racism is completely isolated in the obviously flawed Malick. No one else says or does anything racist, not to mention the fact that nothing is segregated. Lucy’s blast at Axel is a bit unfair, although, considering that he could be said to have used Tommy all along and only thought of himself, the “white man” comment does seem to be true on the face of it.
Farmermouse was pretty scared most of the time, but dug Tommy’s Plymouth convertible and his swingin’ pad. Ten hand trucks for Edge Of The City. 10/10.