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Edge Of The City & Sidney Poitier

25 Feb

Edge Of The City – directed by Martin Ritt. Drama. 85 minutes Black And White 1957.
★★★★★
The Story: A black longshoreman befriends a white fugitive from justice on the loading docks.
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In the ’50s, directors came over into movies from TV where they’d directed live dramas. Martin Ritt was one of them, and this is his first movie. Produced by TV producer David Susskind, its strengths are those of Roberto Rossellini. This means a newsreel look, carefully controlled in natural settings (in this case, The Bronx), with lower-class characters, and earthy acting.

John Cassavetes plays an-Army-deserter-and-maybe-killer working under a brutal, corrupt boss, played by Jack Warden. Warden invests the character with an unselfconscious crudeness – and this sort of extreme commitment to the acting in such films brings them alive. In its day this was called The Method, of which John Cassavetes was an adept.

However, as an actor, Cassavetes seems to play the outer requirements of the role, without actually creating a character who might have stumbled into those requirements. But Cassavetes had the lower-class sensibility, so we take him at his word. He is a macho male cast as an insecure male who must repeatedly reassert his manhood. He is particularly good in the final scene. This was his first major role in a major movie.

This is also almost Sidney Poitier’s first major role in a major movie. (In a shorter version, he had done it on television.) And it will surprise you to see Poitier in a merry mood, singing, dancing, married, and actively befriending a white male stranger. However, laughing a lot though he is, the set-up of the role is the same as in subsequent Poitier films: the nice black guy finally has his say.

The experience of seeing such a picture and such actors was one eagerly sought out by movie goers of the ’50s such as myself. Black And White TV had brought such earthy stories into the parlor; we were fed up with the Hollywood aesthetic and the technicolor mug of Doris Day.

We wanted guts. We may not have been able to express our own, so we wanted our actors to supply it. We went to such films as Edge Of The City, hungry. Such hungers are never slaked, but only keep seeking the sustenance of proof that sustenance exists. They don’t make you gutsy; they only show you who is.

The difficulty of such a film is that it supplied it. But, though Cassavetes’ strained sulk was no match for the Krakatoa of Marlon Brando, Cassavetes was good looking, brooding, and just plain sexy. And Poitier was a completely novelty — a black man volunteering friendship and hospitality to a white person.

What reaches one still about this film is the vibrancy of its setting in The Bronx, its workplace, playground, and streets. These are of a reality not pleasant and having nothing to do with Technicolor’s ice-cream sundaes. They reached us then and they reach us still.

And then there was Sidney Poitier!

The first great black actor?

Before him, nothing?

No.

Before him, marvelous black actors worked their craft, as devoted actors do, with diligence, humor, skill, and curiosity. They were given respect and commercial importance in their professions. Hattie McDaniel said, “At home, I am Hattie, but in the studio I am Miss McDaniel.”

Paul Robeson, Step ‘n’ Fetchit, Louise Beavers, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, Butterfly McQueen, Canada Lee, Ethel Waters were performers of high skill. We enjoy their work to this day. They still entertain. Their work still has carrying power.

But before Poitier, black roles were largely for singers and dancers, wily fools, and yessah-servants.

When Poitier appeared on the screen, something closed down and something opened up.

As an acting instrument, what is he?

His irises are centered in his eyes with fear and determination.

The fear allows him to act. Because it keeps him aware.

The determination allows his character to make a pronounced effect.

He delivers his lines with certainty of expression. He’s well spoken, soft spoken. Does not reach for words or stammer for cues. Never speaks in Ebonics.

He exudes considerable charm when he chooses to exert it.

He keeps his figure into advanced age.

He is an actor of marked discretion of attack. He never over-acts or miscalculates an effect. He knows when to make his move and makes it unmistakably.

He has a good carriage and holds himself tall. He perhaps understands the dramatic effect of his fine neck, for his response will often not be facial, but make use of his boyish, well-shaped head.

He is a handsome male and photogenic as all get out. He is at ease in a suit.

But most of all, what struck us was that he is a black male in a big leading role! And what didn’t strike us was that we granted him stardom no questions asked. Suddenly, in Edge Of The City, we were fascinated to discover a black actor — my God! — playing a part heretofore completely unknown to the movies — a gentleman! Sidney Poitier was playing, for the first time in pictures, a role that was not blackface-in-disguise!

From this time forward, we will see him mostly play dignified professionals: doctor, lawyer, detective, minister, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall. His roles are middleclass or below. This limits his career to noble Henry Fonda parts, and this also limits him artistically, since his roles are constructed with him quietly receiving damage until the final reel, at which point he fires both guns with invariable verbal power. He also never plays a character with a psychological weakness. He never plays in romance. Seldom in comedy.

But Sidney Poitier cleared away the limitations for black actors like a prince on a snow plough.

As a result, new limitations arose and remain: guns, violence, corruption, drugs, and ghetto grunge occupy black films now and sidetrack us into the view that black folks are only worth regarding when degraded. The middle-class black story is not filmed. True, Tyler Perry does bring low black satire before us, thank goodness, but, Perry aside, the non-racial black story is rare.

One reason Poitier became a Hollywood star and changed the sort of role written for back actors is that Sidney Poitier was not American.

He was from the West Indies.

He was born in Miami to Bahaman parents on a short visit and was immediately returned to and reared in The Bahamas. He was not reared under the influence of an American ghetto and its argot. Indeed, once he came here, he had to rid himself of his West Indian accent to find acting work. The result is Poitier’s “way of speaking”. Not only The West Indies but also “The American Negro” is completely absent from it. His intonation is literally mid-Atlantic. Behind it, his merriment is West Indian and therefore, as non-American, seldom shown in films. It is why he did not do black American comedy and that, when he does so, as in Uptown Saturday Night, he is slightly off-key.

All of this screened him from playing ethnic, native American Negro types, for he wasn’t one. But “West Indian” was the invisible-man attached to him, and reserved him instead for the dignified, patient characters his career was built upon. He was sold as American, and America bought it, and for a very good reason. Behind the trick, as well as in front of it, was a recognizably understandable fine human.

Every actor has spaces of his craft it is his fate never to explore. When Poitier was young he was friends with Harry Belafonte. Belafonte wanted to be an actor, Poitier a singer. Poitier may have stayed in American too long to know what The Bahamas was, and if he was forced by the times to be the actor we know, still we do know him. And, because we do, we know something fine in ourselves too.

For Sidney Poitier’s existence in film halted America on one walk and started us on another. Because of him and after him, the world could now see unseen sides of the black soul. And America could relax, acknowledge, and admire a black person in a way we had all always wanted to.

He is a fine craftsman and a great star.

He may not have meant us to — but we Americans owe an enormous debt to Sidney Poitier.
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DIRECTED BY: Martin Ritt, Jack Warden, John Cassavetes, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier

 
 
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