Cast & Crew
Axel Nordmann, a troubled young man, arrives one evening at a New York City freight train depot looking for a job. When the night watchman tells him he has to wait until the morning, Axel falls asleep in the yard, and the next morning is woken up by Tommy Tyler, a kindly black stevedore, who befriends him. When Axel asks to speak to Charles Malik, Malik pretends to recognize him and hires him, aware that Ed Favors, a mutual friend with illicit connections, has sent him. Axel joins Malik's crew as a stevedore and quickly learns that he is required to give Malik a portion of his earnings in exchange for having received the job. Malik, a racist, also demands that Axel stay away from Tommy if he wants to continue to work. When Tommy offers to help Axel find an apartment in his neighborhood, Axel at first angrily refuses, but then accepts his kindness. The next day, Tommy gives Axel his very own stevedore's hook and has him transferred to his own gang. Malik begins to taunt Axel, who has been calling himself Axel North, about his dealings with Favors, and Axel decides to be honest with Tommy by telling him his real name and that he is from Gary, Indiana. Later, at a bar, Axel tells Tommy about the tragedy that ruined his life: After the death of his much-loved brother Andy, who was killed in a car accident while Axel was driving, his father, a strict police officer, blamed Axel for killing his favorite son. One night, Axel has dinner with Tommy, his wife Lucy, and their friend, Ellen Wilson, a white social worker who, like Lucy, is well-educated and motivated by leftist political causes. The four go dancing at a Latin nightclub, and when Axel is recognized by a drunken soldier, he flees in embarrassment. Sometime later as Axel is beginning to benefit from Tommy's philosophy that he must behave like "a man ten feet tall," Malik continues to taunt Axel with oblique references to his past. Axel finally confesses to Tommy the whole story: He enlisted in the Army as a way of dignifying himself in his family's eyes, but then deserted because the sergeant criticized him unrelentingly. Tommy tells Axel that he will always stand by him, and later Ellen, with whom Axel has fallen in love, also pledges her support. At work, Axel decides finally to stand up to Malik and the two begin to fight. Tommy intervenes and when Malik makes a racist comment to him, the two longtime enemies go at it with their stevedore's hooks. Tommy is stabbed in the back and dies in Axel's arms. When the police detective arrives, all the workers deny having seen anything, and Axel, too, keeps quiet. Axel goes home and calls his parents for the first time in years and tells them that he wants to come home. Before Axel leaves for Gary, he goes to see Lucy, who insists on knowing how Tommy was killed. When Axel finally tells her haltingly that Tommy was killed in a fight, she screams at him for not going to the police and then kicks him out. Prompted by Ellen to do what is right, Axel goes back to work, has the detective called, and tells Malik that he is going to turn him in. Malik grabs his hook and the two engage in a vicious fight, which Axel finally wins. Axel then drags Tommy's murderer to the detective, as the other workers watch and follow.
William A. Lee
Robert Alan Aurthur
C. J. Di Gangi
James [a.] Gleason
Anna Hill Johnstone
Edge of the City
Edge of the City marked the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, a former actor with Elia Kazan in New York's Group Theatre and a successful theatre and television director before he was blacklisted for past Communist affiliations in 1951. Due to the efforts of former Warner Brothers press agent turned producer David Susskind, Ritt's career was resurrected with Edge of the City and marked the beginning of a long, highly acclaimed film career which included Best Director Oscar® nominations for Hud (1963) and Norma Rae (1979).
At the same time, Sidney Poitier, cast in a supporting role in Edge of the City (he played the same role in Arthur's stage play), was on the cusp of major stardom and would earn an Academy Award® nomination the following year for his performance in The Defiant Ones (1958), directed by Stanley Kramer. Like Ritt, Poitier's political affiliations were under investigation during the fifties and his career could just as easily have been derailed without the considerable influence of playwright Arthur.
In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier recalls that prior to appearing in A Man is Ten Feet Tall, he was questioned by an NBC executive about his relationships with certain "undesirables" who said, 'You know there are those who feel that there are some dangerous people in this country. According to our information, you happen to know some of those dangerous people.'
'Who are these people - these dangerous people - that I'm supposed to know?'
'You worked with a man named Canada Lee for instance.'
'Yes, I did.' (By this time Canada Lee was dead.)
'You also know a man named Paul Robeson. As a matter of fact, you attended a salute for Robeson held at the Golden Gate Ballroom.'
'That is correct.'
'You spoke in a theatrical sketch that was in praise of Paul Robeson.'
And so he itemized a list of charges against me that questioned my loyalty. He put it to me that unless I repudiated those charges, I would not be able to play the part."
After agonizing over his dilemma, Poitier put his career on the line and refused to sign. "And then Arthur," Poitier recalled, "single-handedly, set in motion a colossal effort on the part of the creative forces (producers, writers, director) aimed at bringing about a workable compromise between the network, the advertising agency, and the Philo Company on one side, and me and my agent on the other." The resulting agreement allowed Poitier to accept the role in the television production of A Man is Ten Feet Tall without having to sign any repudiation of Robeson or Lee.
The play turned out to be a personal triumph for the actor and lead to his casting by Ritt in the film version. In fact, he was the only principal member of the original company who appeared in Edge of the City: Don Murray was replaced by John Cassavetes, Martin Balsam was replaced by Jack Warden, Hilda Simms was replaced by Ruby Dee, and director Robert Mulligan was replaced by Martin Ritt. Despite the changes in cast and crew, the film was universally praised by critics; Variety called it "a courageous, thought-provoking and exacting film....a milestone in the history of the screen in its presentation of an American Negro."
It was during the filming of Edge of the City that Poitier was signed for his next project; a controversial drama about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya entitled Something of Value (1957) with Richard Brooks at the helm. (Poitier had previously worked for him in Blackboard Jungle, 1955.)
Producer: David Susskind
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Robert Alan Arthur (also script A Man Is Ten Feet Tall)
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Film Editing: Sidney Meyers
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: John Cassavetes (Axel North), Ruby Dee (Lucy Tyler), Jack Warden (Charles Malik), Sidney Poitier (Tommy Tyler), Robert F. Simon (Mr. Nordmann), Val Avery (Brother), John Kellogg (Detective), William A. Lee (Davis), Kathleen Maguire (Ellen Wilson), Ruth White (Mrs. Nordmann).
BW-86m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
Edge of the City
The working title of this film was A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. Author Robert Alan Aurthur and producer David Susskind also made the television drama upon which this film is based, A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. Aurthur is credited onscreen only as the film's writer, however. The teleplay starred Sidney Poitier, and in his autobiography, Poitier noted that in order to be hired for the part, NBC's legal department required that he sign a statement repudiating his relationships with Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, whom the legal department had deemed to be "dangerous people." After Poitier refused, Aurthur and others worked out a compromise that allowed him to take the role. Another modern source states that Poitier's appearance in A Man Is Ten Feet Tall marked the first time that a black actor was cast in major role in a television drama, and that when the teleplay was aired, Philco received numerous complaints and threats of cancellation. According to Poitier's autobiography, the complaints were partly directed at Hilda Simms, the actress who played his wife, a very light-skinned black woman who looked white.
The film version of Edge of the City was shot on location in Brooklyn and Harlem. The Variety review commented that the picture was a "milestone" in cinema history because it showed a black man as "a fully-integrated, first-class citizen," rather than as a "problem." The review goes on to suggest, however, that the representation of equality between whites and blacks in the film might raise the issue of how the film should be marketed in the South, "in light of the current tension over integration." In a modern interview, director Martin Ritt recalled that "Tommy Tyler's" death sparked a near riot in one theater where the film was shown.
According to correspondence in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA was worried about the possibility that John Cassavetes' character "Axel Nordmann" might be viewed as homosexual. In a letter dated March 16, 1956 to producer Susskind, PCA official Geoffrey Shurlock cited as problematic Axel's "almost psychopathic aversion to women," and requested that a scene be cut in which Axel demonstrates "a rather unusual reaction to the couple he sees necking in the movie." He also asked Susskind to remove a moment of dialogue in which "Malik" teases Axel and Tommy by announcing to the work crew that they are getting married. Neither of these scenes appears in the finished film. Edge of the City was the first film venture for Susskind, Aurthur and Ritt who, prior to this project, worked in television and theater.
Released in United States January 21, 1989
Released in United States June 2000
Released in United States Winter January 1957
Shown at Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City June 14-29, 2000.
Shown at United States Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Tribute to John Cassavetes) January 21, 1989.
Feature directorial debut for Martin Ritt, who made the move over from television.
Broadcast on TNT (colorized version) May 1989.
Released in United States Winter January 1957
Released in United States January 21, 1989 (Shown at United States Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Tribute to John Cassavetes) January 21, 1989.)
First film to be produced by David Susskind.
Released in United States June 2000 (Shown at Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City June 14-29, 2000.)