The film was considered unusual for its time because of its portrayal of an interracial friendship, and was praised by representatives of the NAACP, Urban League, American Jewish Committee and Interfaith Council because of its portrayal of racial brotherhood.
Young drifter Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes) arrives at the waterfront on the west side of Manhattan, seeking employment as a longshoreman, and giving his name as "Alex North." He goes to work in a gang of stevedores headed by Charlie Malick (Jack Warden) a vicious bully, and is befriended by Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier), who also supervises a stevedore gang. Malick resents blacks in positions of authority, and is antagonized when Axel goes to work for Tommy.
Axel moves into Tommy's neighborhood and becomes friends with Tommy's wife Lucy (Ruby Dee) and becomes romantically involved with her friend Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire). Tommy serves as a mentor to Axel, urging him to stand up to Malick, and that if he does he will be "ten feet tall." It is apparent from the start that Axel is hiding something, and it emerges that he is a deserter from the United States Army. Malick is aware of that, and is extorting money from him.
Malick frequently tries to provoke Tommy and Axel into fights, with Tommy coming to Axel's aid. Malick finally provokes Tommy into a fight, with both men using their baling hooks. Tommy at one point disarms Malick and implores him to stop, but Malick seizes the hook and kills him. The police investigation is stymied by lack of cooperation from the longshoremen, including Axel. But after meeting with the distraught Lucy, who accuses him of never being Tommy's friend as he knows who killed Tommy but has not told the police, Axel finally decides to cooperate. He goes to Malick to tell him that. They get into a fight, and in the end, though beaten, Axel strangles Malick unconscious and drags him away to face justice.John Cassavetes as Axel Nordmann
Sidney Poitier as Tommy Tyler
Jack Warden as Charlie Malick
Kathleen Maguire as Ellen Wilson
Ruby Dee as Lucy Tyler
Val Avery as Brother
Robert F. Simon as George Nordmann (as Robert Simon)
Ruth White as Katherine Nordmann
William A. Lee as Davis
John Kellogg as Detective
David Clarke as Wallace (as David Clark)
Estelle Hemsley as Mrs. Price
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer budgeted only $500,000 for the film because its racial content was believed to limit its marketability in the south. Poitier was paid $15,000 for the role and received his first co-star billing, though it was considered small by movie industry standards. Ritt, who had been blacklisted, was paid only $10,000. The film was shot on location at a railroad yard in Manhattan and on St. Nicholas Terrace in New York's Harlem.
MGM delayed release of the film because it was uneasy with the racial theme. However, the film was released after receiving rave reviews from preview audiences.
The film was not a commercial success because it did not play in the South, and was refused by many theater managers because of its depiction of an interracial relationship.
Poitier was the only actor remaining from the TV version, in which the Jack Warden character was played by Martin Balsam and the Cassavetes character was played by Don Murray. The TV version was directed by Robert Mulligan. The script was completely rewritten for the film.
The opening title sequence and theatrical release poster were designed by Saul Bass.
According to MGM records the film earned $360,000 in the US and Canada and $400,000 elsewhere resulting in a loss of $125,000 despite its low cost.
The film earned positive reviews, with critics praising the unusual multiracial relationship between the Poitier and Cassavetes characters. Up till then, whites were ordinarily shown in positions of authority. Time magazine noted that the Poitier character "is not only the white man's boss, but is his best friend, and is at all times his superior, possessing greater intelligence, courage, understanding, warmth and general adaptability." Variety said the film was "a milestone in the history of screen in its presentation of an American Negro." The London Sunday Times said the film was "splendidly directed" by Ritt.
Cassavetes also won acclaim for his portrayal, which resembled that of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954).
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called Edge of the City an "ambitious little film" that "at times close to some sort of fair articulation of the complexities of racial brotherhood." In one scene in which they have lunch at the river, "the attitudes of the young fellows—the white man with terrors in his mind and the Negro with cordial disposition to be as generous with his friendship as with food—are swiftly and trenchantly established in this little scene and the pattern of deep devotion in their subsequent comradeship is prepared." At those times, Crowther said, Edge of the City was a "sharp and searching film." But more often, he said, Aurthur and Ritt "have let their drama fall too patly into the pattern and the lingo of an imitative television show—a television show imitating the film On the Waterfront."
Poitier's performance received glowing reviews, and the film, along with Blackboard Jungle, helped establish him as "one of Hollywood's few established representatives for black Americans."
The Cassavetes character was notable for its hint of homosexuality, which was uncommon for the time. The Motion Picture Production Code Administration allowed the innuendo, but recommended "extremely careful handling to avoid planting the suspicion that he may be homosexual."
Los Angeles Times critic Dennis Lim, writing in 2009, described Edge of the City and Something of Value (1957) as "variations on an early Poitier specialty, the black-white buddy movie, the most vivid example of which is perhaps Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958)," in which Poitier and Tony Curtis played escaped convicts shackled to each other.
One history of African-Americans in film, originally published by author Donald Bogle in 1973, was critical of Poitier's portrayal, referring to him as portraying a "colorless black" with "little ethnic juice in his blood." His death scene is described as being in the tradition of "the dying slave content that he has served the massa." Bogle writes that Poitier's "loyalty to the white Cassavetes destroys him just as much as the old slave's steadfastness kept him in shackles."
The score was composed, conducted and orchestrated by Leonard Rosenman.
The first release of portions of the score was on MGM Records on LP at the time of the release of the film. This recording re-issued on cd in 2003, on Film Score Monthly records.