Sunday, December 05, 2010

Edge of Doom (1950)

Mr. Craig, my mother’s dying.

I got my own troubles Martin.

Grim. Bleak. Miserable. These are all words that aptly describe the 1950 social noir Edge of Doom. It’s a strange film, saturated with religion, crime, and urban nightmare, with an unrelenting dreariness that makes the experience as hopeless as any to be found in the pantheon of film noir. Whether or not its religious themes shine any redemptive light into its dark corners is, frankly, secondary in importance to the more potent presence the city holds over this film.

The image of postwar Los Angeles in the collective memory is one of the enduring promise of westward expansion: wide-open spaces, sun dappled lawns, orange groves, and home ownership — the American Dream. Opportunities abound along the broad avenues, all of which lead down to a picturesque blue sea. Just as the city described in the opening moments of the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential was proven false, such a fantasy is also absent from Edge of Doom. And by not actually naming the city in which it is set (though it is clearly L.A.), Edge of Doom suggests that it isn’t any single metropolis, but all cities that are to blame for the problems besetting those obliged to inhabit them. Yet this city appears to have more in common with New York, or the Philadelphia of the source novel — than it does Los Angeles. Edge of Doom gives us not a diffuse space, but a densely populated warren of enclosed streets where little sun reaches and the sea is just a far-off dream. It confines its inhabitants and limits their movement. It’s neighborhoods function less like communities than they do cell blocks. And unlike the downtowns of so many other film noirs, this one is indifferent: it harms the innocent to a much larger degree than it does the guilty, with its rampant poverty compounded by overpopulation and lack of upward mobility. In the end, it subversively asks us to consider whether or not religion is the solution, or if it is truly the opiate of the masses.

Dana Andrews, who brooded on screen as well as anyone, is oddly cast here as Father Roth, a jovial priest who seems wise beyond his years. Andrews is here for the wattage of his star power, and gets top billing, but his part should have gone to an older man. Despite Andrews’ presence, Farley Granger is Edge of Doom’s real star. He appears as Martin Lynn, a frustrated young man tethered to the slums by a dead-end job and a dying mother. He draws a pathetic thirty bucks a week driving a truck for the local florist — a man who recognizes Martin’s hard work but is either unable or disinclined to give him a raise. The boy’s salary matters little: the film endeavors to show us that there are essentially no means by which a young man of Martin’s status and circumstances can lift himself out of the urban blight, even if he didn’t have the responsibilities of a girlfriend and a dying mother. Martin wants to relocate to the drier climate in Arizona in order to stave off his mother’s tuberculosis, but his earnings are prohibitive, and there’s no father to help out: Martin’s pop tried to escape his own poverty by sticking up the corner store, and when the police came calling he opted for suicide over prison.

You probably hate plot summaries as much as I do, but the events of the film can’t be discussed without explaining its first thirty minutes — bear with me and I won’t spoil the final hour. The self-murder of the father is the pivotal event in Edge of Doom — even though it predates the action of the film. It’s the father’s demise that plunges Martin and his mother irrevocably into the hell of Skid Row tenement life; while more importantly, it’s the source of Martin’s grudge against the church for refusing the suicide a Christian burial — the same church to which his mother nevertheless devoted her life. As the frail old woman lies dying, she asks her son repeatedly to summon the priest — Martin denies her this, instead escaping to the corridor to beg his neighbors for help. When the haggard woman next door, Mrs. Lally, tells him that nothing else can be done short of the priest, Martin wrenches the phone away from her and storms back to his apartment. She calls anyway, but Father Roth is out attending to another matter. The elderly Father Kirkman (Harold Vermilyea) offers to come, but the neighbor rightly fears Martin’s wrath — Kirkman is the same priest who refused to bury Martin’s dad. Mrs. Lally decides to wait for Father Roth, but it’s too late anyway — she goes to Martin’s room and discovers that his mother died while she and the boy argued over the phone call.

In a state of shock, Martin asks Mrs. Lally to sit with his mother while he makes funeral arrangements. But as he trudges down the stairwell he passes the room of Mr. Craig (Paul Stewart) — a lowlife gambler who invites the young man in for coffee, though it’s unclear whether he’s actually concerned for the boy’s loss or just sees him as an easy mark — it doesn’t take Craig more than a minute or two to find out that the dead woman had no life insurance. Craig’s intentions aside, the exchange has a profound affect on the shocked and impressionable Martin, and paves the way for the film’s primary drama to unfold.


No matter how low their station in life, older men are always inclined to offer younger men advice, and Mr. Craig takes this as an opportunity to do so. It’s here, in Edge of Doom’s best scene, that Stewart earns his paycheck for this performance. His squinty eyes appearing skull-like and hollow under the harsh light of a bare bulb as he stalks around the fair-skinned young man and delivers one of the most delicious speeches in all of film noir. The scene is quiet and powerful, with no music to speak of, just the embittered voice of a man made tough and desperate by too many years on the hard-knock streets:
“Nobody lends you money, a kid like you: driving a truck, delivering flowers, making thirty bucks a week. You’re a bad risk. Money, money! That’s all that counts in this rat race. If you got it they’ll bury you like a queen. If you ain’t they’ll pack her in a box and shove her in a hole in the ground. I feel for you Martin, and for what your mother went through in this world. She oughtta go out in style, like a somebody; the world owes it to her. It’s a rich world, but it hates to give — you gotta take! Somewhere out there someone owes you something. All you gotta do is have the nerve to collect.”
Finished with his monologue, Mr. Craig steps into the kitchen to get Martin his coffee. He returns to find Martin has quietly left. Craig turns from the door, the hint of a smile curling at the edge of his mouth, lights a cigarette and goes to the window, where he looks out over the darkened rooftops to the pulsing sign of the Galaxy Theater, beckoning to him from just a few blocks away.

In the meantime Martin walks to the rectory and rings the bell, where he glimpses Father Kirkman pacing his study. Like all such young men Martin is filled with rage, the sort of unfocused ire that seeks blindly for a target, deserving or not. Martin finds his in the gruff old priest, after testing the front door and finding it unlocked. He pushes in and confronts the old man, who chastises him for denying his mother the last rites. Fueled by Mr. Craig’s words, Martin flies into a rage, demanding the church furnish his mother with the lavish funeral he believes to be her due. The contrived exchange between the two goes poorly, and escalates to the point that Kirkman tells the boy leave. When the priest turns away, Martin grabs a heavy brass crucifix from the desk and bludgeons the man, shouting in a way that would bring unintentional laughs were the film not so dark, “I want a big funeral!” Aghast at his actions, Martin wipes down the crucifix and flees. He attempts to get lost in streets, but the city, in spite of all its anonymity, denies him this. The cops grab the fidgety, guilty-looking young man after he ducks into a diner — it turns out somebody just robbed the Galaxy Theater…

The final hour of the film unfolds along two lines: it deals with Martin’s continued, eventually tedious, attempts to waylay everyone meets into giving his mother a funeral; and the boy’s weakening attempts to elude justice. Wildly successful director Mark Robson, who started his career with Val Lewton horror pics and ended up doing Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls (my favorite is the great boxing picture with Kirk Douglas, Champion), keeps Edge of Doom tense and entertaining throughout. In the most oft-told story about the film, it fared so poorly upon its initial release that it was pulled from theaters so Sam Goldwyn could have additional scenes added to the beginning and end of the picture, as well as some Dana Andrews narration inserted in between. Despite the clamor over the scenes, their message of redemption is fairly banal and does little to compromise the thematic darkness of the film. And haven't we, as noir fans, trained ourselves to ignore the endings of many otherwise wonderful films? Some have complained that in the story’s final moments Father Roth shares that Martin has returned to the church, though I would argue that this outcome is realistic. Many people in Martin’s circumstances show contrition — the real question is whether or not the feelings are authentic. In this case we’ll never know.

When your mother dies, you want desperately for everyone to know how extraordinary she was — such is motherhood — and the desire stays with you, unabated, forever. Much of the criticism of Edge of Doom is hung up on Martin’s single-minded impulse to get his mother a “fancy” funeral, and how his obsession fails to ring true. It’s easy for some to dismiss the movie on those grounds, but I’m not so sure: deep down, Martin probably doesn’t care much whether or not his mother gets an extravagant sendoff. I’m sure he’d be satisfied with something appropriately modest. What Martin really wants is recognition for her life — though his failure is in not understanding human nature: the world in 1950 was changing, people were struggling to recover from the tumult of war, confused over a changing social and domestic order, frightened of annihilation, and cynical about the failed promises of life after victory. Urban life was fast becoming too indifferent for jaded people to get worked up over the loss of what Father Kirkman calls “a simple woman.” People reserve such feelings for their own mothers, not Martin’s. Life in the big city goes on, and the insensitivity of everyday people doesn’t give Martin the right to act out. He, like everyone else, must adjust to things as they are. Martin simply refuses to do so.

Film noir tropes have been applied to an incredibly diverse range of narratives, though few have approached the uncompromising visual and thematic darkness of Edge of Doom, a movie that offers no winners, no bright side, and most importantly: no answers. It confronts us with a troubling vision of postwar urban life and plies a tepid message of redemption amidst squalor that feels unmistakably phony. Consequently it’s distasteful — it lacks that buffering veneer of artifice that allows us to safely give ourselves away to a film. We are drawn to the rain-soaked streets and back alleys of film noir in part because they shimmer — awash in an intoxicating play of light and shadow. Yet, those reflections are of a bygone world that, if we are being honest, could only exist on celluloid. We like film noir because it’s at once stylish and stylized, sexy and seductively violent: an armored car stick-up; a clever fugitive on the run; Laura over the fireplace; Joan Bennett in a raincoat, under a lonely streetlight, the shadows around her like velvet. Edge of Doom, on the other hand, is awfully damn real.



3 comments:

  1. Love this, especially your eloquent summation at the end. What a great piece.

    ReplyDelete
  2. <>

    What an articulate description of the movie-watching experience! And the rest of the paragraph was equally stunning as well. I've always felt that film noir, while assuming the mantle of gritty reality, was really just a Hollywoodized version of that reality. As you say, a world that could exist only on celluloid.

    Every once in a great while, a film will come along that penetrates that Silver Screen veneer, something like LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, but these examples are very rare. Most films noir, as exemplified by, say, Warner Brothers of decades past, fall into the trap of Hollywoodization. Don't get me wrong, many of those films are great, but the reality they portray doesn't extend much beyond their choice of subject matter, which was what initially stood them apart from the rest of the herd.

    Great job!

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