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I Know About This Type of Friendship
by Jon Schuller

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Both my parents instilled many strong values in me over the years. One of them was judging people by what they say and do not by how they look. Making assumptions about another person based on prejudice and old parental attitudes doesn't work and isn't fair. I passed this on to my own daughters. Many of my friends, in and out of school, were black and I'm talking about the 1950s and the 1960s (and today as well). I didn't care about their skin or where they lived. I only knew I enjoyed being with them and they were the same with me. I did things in college with my friends that were daring for the time but I frankly wasn't concerned. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and we knew all about it. But what we were and what we did wasn't for show. It was simply friendship.

The movies do many things for society besides entertain us: they inform the public about real life and real events. Even though television and the internet do those things too, and instantaneously - films are still a major influence on all our lives. There have been countless movies that dramatized what was about to happen in life before it actually
did happen. The 1950s were a turbulent decade and what was being written about and shown on theatre screens mirrored the unsettled times. Wars were a constant and civil unrest happened everywhere. In January, 1957, a film premiered that proved to be an excellent barometer of the times, on a public and personal level. It showed what was happening as people defied conventions. Edge of the City starred Sidney Poitier as Tommy Tyler and John Cassavetes as Axel Nordmann. It featured Jack Warden as Charlie Malick, Ruby Dee as Lucy Tyler, Kathleen Maguire as Ellen Wilson and Val Avery as Brother. Directed by Martin Ritt, it was based on a screenplay by Robert Alan Arthur, first seen on the Philco Television Playhouse (live, of course), in 1955, titled A Man Ten Feet Tall.

Axel Nordmann comes to New York City's West Side (on the Hudson) to find work on the docks and railroad yards. When asked for his personal information he calls himself Alex North. He has the name of one of the workers as a reference, and gets put to work in a stevedore gang, headed by a rather nasty man named Charlie Malick. Another gang is run by Tommy Tyler, who
becomes Axel's friend. Malick resents Tyler running his own gang simply because Tommy is a black man. Tommy tells Axel his neighborhood uptown would be a great place to live in. Axel doesn't really care where the location is as long as he remains anonymous. He moves in and becomes friends with Tommy's wife, Lucy, and her friend, Ellen.

Tommy really cares about Axel and isn't interested in his "past." Malick finds out that Axel's a deserter from the U.S. Army and begins extorting money from his meager paycheck. Tommy tells Axel to confront Malick, don't be intimidated and stand up "ten feet tall."

Malick is always baiting Tommy and Axel into fights either with each other or other men on the docks. Finally, reluctantly, Tommy squares off with Malick himself. He's had enough of the racial epithets and threats. They each have a baling hook and Tommy disarms Malick, but he grabs Tommy's weapon and kills him. Axel knows the truth but is hesitant to tell the police what really happened and, thus, exposing himself to scrutiny. He talks to Ruby and she says directly if he were really Tommy's friend he'd tell the truth regardless
of consequences. He fights with Malick, knocks him out and drags his body to the authorities.

In 1957, a movie that portrayed two men, one black, one white, as good friends, didn't do too well at the box office simply because it couldn't play in the Jim Crow South and wasn't shown there. But the film was a breakthrough because the white man wasn't a boss and the black man wasn't subservient to him. It took up where On the Waterfront (1954) left off as the loser becomes a hero who stands up against injustice and fights for principles he didn't know he possessed. And, of course, there were some critics who couldn't find anything of value in this movie but their opinions were of 1957, not above and beyond it.

It's a great film and it treated (and showed) a delicate subject that existed in real life but wasn't dramatized too often, except maybe on stage. You might find it predictable but then, remember, it was made 60 years ago. We still have many of the same, persistent problems today, but they get solved, slowly, almost invisibly, on a one-to-one, individual basis, as people become friends and old stereotypes disappear.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

A Different Perspective on War

Some Movie Scenes Still Make Me Emotional

From 12 To 1

Another Sign That the Times Were Changing

Two Different Neighborhoods, Yet So Alike

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for over 26 years.I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 47 years (as of December 22, 2015) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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