This film is topical again with NATO again confronting Russia and in danger of starting a nuclear conflict. In terms of its importance in Sidney Poitier’s career, this is a rare example of a film in the 1960s which does not focus on his African American identity in any way. Of course, there may be those in the audience for whom his presence is a surprise in a positive or negative way but that is not the direct concern of the narrative.
The ‘Bedford’ is a US Navy destroyer equipped with new technologies for submarine hunting and its captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a determined hunter. Also on board is Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke of the Deutsche Marine (Eric Portman) who twenty years earlier was an ace U-boat captain. He is an observer for a NATO ally and also an adviser on submarine tactics. At the start of the film a helicopter delivers two extra passengers, a magazine journalist Ben Munceford (Poitier) and a doctor, Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam) who has been in the US Navy Reserve since 1945. The other leading player is Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a likeable and talented young man being treated harshly by Finlander who thinks this will make him a better officer. All the action takes place on the destroyer which patrols the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Finlander hopes to catch a Soviet submarine in Greenland territorial waters (i.e. in NATO waters). He identifies a ‘mother ship’ (a Russian trawler) and works out that a submarine is not far away and that it is a conventionally powered rather than nuclear vessel, meaning it can’t return to base under the Arctic ice. It may, however, have nuclear torpedoes. Eventually Finlander’s crew detects a submarine within NATO waters. How will the potential contact work out?
I saw this on release in 1965 and it has stayed with me. I’m now intrigued by the production as well as the taut narrative. It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood productions to shoot in the UK during the mid-1960s but usually that meant either a British production with Hollywood backing for a British story or an American film set in the UK. This is an American story set in the North Atlantic with an American cast, apart from the always reliable Eric Portman. Yet the production actually took place at Shepperton Studios with footage at sea shot in the Mediterranean using facilities in Malta. There was model work in the tank at Shepperton and footage of a similar British ship (a frigate) in the Med. The crew was almost entirely British, including Gil Taylor as cinematographer and Arthur Lawson as art director. Lawson worked on many shipboard narrative features. He was a regular on shoots by the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, including The Battle of the River Plate (UK 1956) which also used Royal Navy ships filmed in the Med to stand in for the (South) Atlantic. The Bedford Incident is very much a film of ‘connections’. The director James B. Harris was mainly a producer (this was one of only five films he directed) and he worked in the UK with Stanley Kubrick on Lolita in 1962. It is said that they fell out over Dr Strangelove (1964), which Harris wanted to be a straight drama. The Bedford Incident might therefore be his anti-nuclear war film. Eric Portman had played at least two Germans before, once as a U-boat Leutnant in 49th Parallel (1941), one of a trio of Powell and Pressburger films in which he featured.
Widmark and Harris were producers on the film with Denis O’Dell as associate producer – I presume that he was the link to the British crew and creatives. He had also been associate producer on The Long Ships in 1964 which also starred Widmark and Poitier. That film was a UK-Yugoslavia co-production through Warwick Pictures an UK independent with a strong link to Columbia which also distributed The Bedford Incident. Widmark and Poitier were friends, going back to No Way Out (US 1950). A further link between some of the people working on this film was Richard Lester. The film was written by James Poe, an experienced writer on several high profile films, including Lilies of the Field (1963) for which Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar. The original novel of The Bedford Incident was written by Mark Rascovich who in the Second World War had been a flyer across the North Atlantic and in Africa. He did write other books but they were not adapted.
The film had a positive reception except for some high-profile critics. It has got a good reputation now, including among navy veterans despite a number of mistakes including a mix of British and American equipment and some outdated terminology. For my purpose here, the central issues are about the Munceford-Finlander relationship and also the extent to which the film tells us something important about the Cold War and subsequent nuclear confrontations. Poitier’s journalist has been described by some critics as a form of liberal intellectual who is intent on challenging and investigating Finlander. We learn that although he is aiming to research a general piece about life on a navy ship, he has specifically asked to visit Finlander’s command. This was after he discovered that Finlander had been passed over for promotion immediately after being feted for his actions in forcing a Russian submarine to surface at the time of the Cuba crisis. The inference is that Finlander is a dangerous ‘hawk’ in his approach to his job. Wikipedia’s detailed analysis of the film suggests that Munceford is similar to the character in The Caine Mutiny who challenges Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) – except that he is more likeable than the Keefe character on the Caine. Widmark apparently based his performance partly on the persona of Barry Goldwater who was seen as a ‘hawk’ at the time of his presidential campaign in 1964. However, there is also the suggestion that Finlander is a modern Captain Ahab hunting his own Moby Dick and there are some whale references in the script.
This is really Widmark’s film and Poitier does not have as much screen time. I feel he is also a slightly comic character at certain times, clearly not used to life on the ship which is constantly on alert. He is often taking photographs and at one point seems in danger of being swept overboard. Perhaps he is in some ways simply a ‘civilian’ who is too light-hearted for Widmark’s Captain. But this means he is really the audience’s representative on the ship. He is also a determined journalist and an acute observer as well as someone concerned by Finlander’s behaviour. But his character is not the only one challenging Finlander. Both Potter and the German Commodore attack or criticise Finlander – and both have naval experience. Potter might have been a reservist for twenty years and he has returned to service in order to escape something in his personal life, but he is a doctor and an officer and not a rating. He is prepared to stand up to Finlander – but he cannot in the last resort disobey orders. But the most chilling line in the film goes to Commander Schrepke. He gives Finlander good advice and doesn’t attempt to pass criticism directly. When Finlander challenges him and says “Do you think I am a desperate man”, he replies “No. But you frighten me”. I won’t spoil what happens at the end of the film. It is certainly worth waiting for.
The criticism of this film is that it is conventional. It’s true that it is quite a static film and for much of the time it is more like a stage play. Its strength however is that the four leads are all very experienced and capable actors and carry the script through some of the more surprising actions of the captain. The fifth central figure, James MacArthur as Ensign Ralston, has less to say but his actions are significant. Widmark and Poitier work well together but perhaps it is Portman and Balsam who are very strong supports that ensure the the narrative works as a Cold War lesson. The Ukraine War reminds us that we have spent nearly 70 years in a state of nuclear ‘preparedness’ I guess that for some younger audiences this could be quite an eye-opener. The film is highly recommended and it is available on many of the streamers.
I’d known about this film for a long time, but never attempted to see it. I assumed it was a ‘worthy’ filmed play. But when I began to watch as many Sidney Poitier films as possible, I decided to rent the Criterion Blu-ray available on Cinema Paradiso. My assumptions proved misguided at best. I was totally gripped by the film, staying up until 2 am to watch it through. I knew it was of some cultural importance but I didn’t actually know the half of it.
The original play was written by Lorraine Hansberry and when the production reached Broadway in 1959, she became the youngest, the first African American and only the fifth woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died tragically young at the age of only 34 from cancer in 1965. She also provided the inspiration for the Nina Simone song, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. What a woman! Her parents were middle-class and it was their experience in moving into a previously all white neighbourhood of Chicago which provided the central idea for the play. The Criterion Blu-ray includes a host of extras, including background on Ms Hansberry.
The production took some time to reach Broadway via openings outside New York and it was a struggle to put on the show – but eventually it found its audience and especially Black theatregoers (though not without dissenting voices). Its success meant that a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable and the rights were acquired by Columbia. The studio were prepared to allow Lorraine Hansberry to adapt her own play, but they weren’t prepared to hire the play’s original African American director Lloyd Richards (who was actually born in Canada as the son of a Jamaican migrant father), claiming he had limited experience of either film or television. At that point he had appeared as an actor on television and as himself in two TV series about the theatre. Instead, Columbia hired the Canadian director Daniel Petrie who had ten years of experience directing dramas, including live plays on US TV, but only one feature film for the cinema (The Bramble Bush in 1960 with Richard Burton and Barbara Rush). Columbia also kept a tight reign on Hansberry. Supposedly worried that the film might be off-putting for white audiences, they barred the use of African American speech patterns and several subjects that Hansberry wanted to broach. Fortunately they didn’t veto the original cast so all the principal players appeared in the film.
The play features an African American family on Chicago’s South Side. It appears to be a family located on the boundary of working-class/lower middle-class. They live in a rented two bedroom apartment. Father has died and it is his life insurance money that drives the narrative. Mother (Lena) is about to cease full-time work as a domestic servant. Her eldest son is Walter Lee, a chauffeur and her daughter Beneatha is a student hoping to enter medical school. Walter Lee is married to Ruth and they have a son Travis. Walter Lee wants to use at least part of the money to open a bar with two friends. Some of the money should be used to pay Beneatha’s school fees. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Lena has plans to use the money to put a deposit on a house in a white suburb – the only decent house she can find at the right price. If she goes through with her plan there will be consequences, possibly for Walter Lee and Beneatha. There is also the possibility of a reaction from white residents.
The film’s title is taken from the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The concept of ‘deferred gratification’ is often quoted as marking the difference between working-class and middle-class approaches to life in capitalist societies. In this play, Walter Lee’s aspiration, after working as a chauffeur for many years, is a business venture whereas Beneatha is prepared to give up several years of earnings in the hope of earning a higher salary in future. For Walter Lee, earning money, ‘making money’, is what defines him as a man. For Beneatha it is acquiring learning and culture that will define her. But for Lena it is family that is most important and that means a home in which the family can thrive. These are universal issues but Hansberry’s play also presents the specific context of African American life and weaves the specificities of certain issues into the narrative. The play’s origination in housing issues and specifically the racial segregation experienced, even in the North before the ‘Fair Housing Act’ as part of the 1968 Civil Rights legislation, is one aspect of this. Beneatha has two suitors in the play. George Murchison is a successful business man and an ‘assimilated’ African American. But Beneatha spends more time with Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba student from Nigeria who tries to educate her about Africa (many (most?) African Americans of this era knew little about Africa). Hughes’ poem about a ‘dream deferred’ points to all the problems associated with African American life in the 1950s.
The filmed play
Stage adaptations have long had a bad rap among film critics and scholars and I confess to having avoided them whenever possible. However, in this case I think the adaptation works. The first major issue is whether to ‘open out’ the play in order to make it more ‘cinematic’. This can produce a very artificial sense of shooting an outdoor scene just for the sake of it. Petrie uses three main scenes outside the apartment – Walter Lee seen as a chauffeur at work and again in his local bar meeting his friends and the whole family visiting the house in the suburbs. The first of these is not strictly necessary but the other two add something significant. But the vast majority of the long running time (128 minutes) remains in the apartment. The studio set was designed and lit to enable particular framings and shot compositions. The most notable feature of the camerawork is the use of deep focus. This means that on occasions shots can be organised so that the whole depth of the apartment could be utilised with characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. There is also a number of high angle and low angle shots inside the rooms. The overall effect is not an expressionist style in which the the mise en scène plays an exaggerated role, but a form of realism in which the emotional playing of the actors can be highlighted. Charles Lawton Jr. was an interesting choice as cinematographer. He was a veteran, often associated with Westerns. Two of the directors he worked with were John Ford and Orson Welles, both known for deep focus staging. He had also worked on live TV plays.
Since the cast were very familiar with the script they were able to approach their roles with confidence and move freely through the set. As well as Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee and Ruby Dee again playing the Poitier character’s wife on screen, the other two main players were Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. I’m not sure if stage productions are less age-specific in casting, but Claudia McNeil was playing much older than her real age – she was only twelve years older than Poitier. All the central performances are excellent. Most reviews of the play and the film acknowledge the standout performance as Poitier’s and argue that it is a play focused primarily on Walter Lee. I didn’t feel this so strongly. I wouldn’t want to put one performance ahead of the others, but as a narrative I thought this was Lena’s story. Perhaps it is because I see it as a family melodrama which in film and television is usually focused on the women.
This does appear to be a play which is both specific to the African American experience in the 1950s and early 1960s but is also relatable for universal audiences. As I watched it I did think of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the British New Wave including the stage play Look Back in Anger (1959) and the literary adaptation A Kind of Loving (1962). I was also reminded of a Spanish film, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963). These may all sound unlikely comparisons but they each explore working-class ‘aspirations’ around more or less the same period. They also each use a similar form of what is now known in Europe as social realism. To be more specific, The Executioner uses a neo-realist idea in that a young man accepts the job of executioner for the Spanish state because it confers access to public housing (he has no desire to execute people but he needs a house for his wife and child and father-in-law). A Raisin in the Sun follows the same neo-realist idea – introduce a simple change to the lives of an ‘ordinary family’ and explore what happens. In this case $10,000 dollars of insurance money, rather than ‘solving’ the family’s problems exposes some of the tensions which lie below the surface of family life in South Chicago.
I feel that director Petrie, cinematographer Lawton and the whole creative team were able to showcase the emotional performances of the principal players. The images presented in this post (including a selection of screengrabs from dvdbeaver.com) show how a stage play can be adapted effectively for the big screen. Poitier is well served by Petrie. His very physical performance is enhanced by the camerawork and compositions. When I consider how Poitier is presented in this film, I see a distinct change from the 1950s roles in films like No Way Out (1950) and Edge of the City (1957). In those films he still feels trapped within the concept of the ‘good Negro’ but Walter Lee is allowed to be human, to ‘fail’, to be cruel and insensitive and to be shamed by his mother. It is the strength of the characterisation of the three women in his life that makes this possible.
The Criterion website is an excellent resource and carries two useful essays on the film as well as details of the Blu-ray and DVD. If you are going to watch this film, I urge you to consider watching the Criterion disc.
1957 marked a turning point in American cinema when it was becoming easier for blacklisted personnel in the industry to get jobs and to find sympathetic subjects to work on. Director Martin Ritt began his film career in television but was eventually forced out in the early 1950s after an anti-communist newsletter that accused him of supporting communists in US trade unions. Like Nicholas Ray, his background was the 1930s theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. He was also closely allied to Elia Kazan. After four years back in the theatre world he made Edge of the City as his first cinema feature and looking through the credits of the film I notice several of his creative colleagues are associated with socially conscious films of one kind or another. Ritt himself would go on to have a successful career even though he started relatively late as a director, being nearly 43 when the film was released. His is one of the names I remember from the 1960s because of the progressive subject matter of his films.
Edge of the City presents a story set in the docklands of New York and features John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier as joint topliners. Axel North (Cassavetes) is a young drifter who blags his way into a job as a stevedore (US: longshoreman) based on a tip he must have received, only to discover that he has been duped and that he has to pay a cut of his wages to gang leader Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). But on his first day he also makes contact with another gang leader, the more friendly Tommy Tyler (Poitier). The two quickly form a bond. Though Axel remains wary, he ends up renting a room close to Tommy’s home. Tommy turns out to be be a ‘good guy’ who introduces Axel to his wife (Ruby Dee in one of her several roles with Poitier) and small son. The couple even find Axel a date with Ellen (Kathleen Maguire) and invite them both to dinner and dancing in a club. Axel is very nervous and by chance an incident threatens to reveal something about his background – we already know he has a difficult relationship with his parents. Gradually he opens up to Tommy.
The closer Axel and Tommy get, the more we fear that trouble at work will emerge created by a vengeful Malick. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t recount any more of the plot except to say that the work confrontation does provide the climax of the narrative. I want instead to make more general comments. The first is to express some disappointment that we don’t learn too much about the job which appears to be confined to a small area in which boxes and other larger containers are being loaded onto railway freight wagons. The presentation of parts of New York is in line with the general realist work familiar from late 1940s films and 1950s filmed TV series. The jazz-tinged score by Leonard Rosenman is perhaps the marker of a period when black and white features like this used jazz as a sign of modernity. The dancing featured in the film seemed almost free-form to me but I’m no expert on dance at this time.
As my title for this post makes clear, I chose this film because of Poitier. At this point in his career he was mostly playing supporting roles. It would be in the following year with The Defiant Ones (1958) that he would receive joint top billing in a major feature. In Edge of the City, though Poitier had featured in prominent roles in several ‘A’ films, his billing was shared with Cassavetes. Two years younger than Poitier, Cassavetes had many TV credits to his name but only two films, being ‘Introduced’ in 1956 in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets. Intrigued by the background of this film I started to research it more deeply. I discovered that it was in effect a remake of a celebrated TV play from 1955 titled A Man is Ten Feet Tall written by Robert Aurthur and directed by Robert Mulligan and Hal Tulchin for ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Poitier repeats his role as Tommy Tyler but the rest of the cast for TV was different. I think the TV version was only 60 minutes whereas the film is 85 mins – I’m guessing that the Axel’s back story featuring his parents is one of the extra elements.
Edge of the City is Axel’s story and, though a major presence, Tommy Tyler is a secondary character. In institutional terms Poitier’s career is not moving forward. The role itself does seem to confirm the Poitier persona as a ‘good Negro’ in 1950s terms. But his ‘goodness’ is presented through the way he welcomes Axel and looks after him. In some ways Tommy seems just too welcoming, too friendly. Is he a bit isolated at work himself? Is it that he ‘feels’ Axel’s sense of isolation and that the two of them would both benefit from a strong bond of friendship? We don’t really learn how Tommy came to be a gang-leader. Come to that, we get only brief glimpses of the management of the dock work. I’m tempted to compare Edge of the City to two other features set around the same time. In Flame in the Streets (UK 1961) it is the possibility that a West Indian migrant might become a factory foreman in a London company that causes major problems within the trade union. The film stars Earl Cameron – in some ways the UK’s own Poitier figure, but not so successful. In 1959 Harry Belafonte heads a starry cast in Odds Against Tomorrow, a New York-set crime film with a little of the same feel for New York as Edge of the City. Belafonte had a quite different career compared to Poitier. Perhaps his star image as a popular singer was a major factor in winning him lead roles starting with his second film Otto Preminger’s Carmen (1954)? Belafonte also moved into co-producer and later producer roles, including his 1972 film Buck and the Preacher, directed by Poitier and starring the two of them.
The promotion of Edge of the City and much of the writing around the film focuses on Malick’s ‘bigotry’ and in particular his racism. Malick is certainly a bigot and a bully and racism is part of that bigotry. But I’m not sure that institutional racism in terms of employment opportunities on the docks is represented in the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that the dock workers are all white except Tommy, but this isn’t true. There must be four or five other black workers but I don’t think they are speaking parts – perhaps their silence is a feature of their secondary status? (See the black worker in the background of the image above.) But Tommy is certainly vocal and in a position of some authority. It does look as if Malick’s gang is whites only, but I can’t be sure. Although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed that there was no union presence as such and that other workers were prepared to stand back both when Malick was the attacker and when he was losing a fight or an argument. Tommy doesn’t seem to be associated with the other black workers. Edge of the City is not really attempting to copy On The Waterfront as some reviews suggest. Axel is really the protagonist and the narrative is his ‘journey’ towards finding himself and finding the courage to act. Poitier’s character is arguably another ‘good Negro’ teaching whites how to work and live with dignity and purpose – and suffering for it.
Possibly the film is trying to do too much. Axel’s back story is a driving force and is gradually revealed over the course of the film. It means that the potentially interesting characters of Lucy and Ellen are perhaps not developed as much as they could be. Cassavetes was well on the way to stardom with this film. It seems to have taken longer for Poitier, though in the end he made it all the way to the top and Cassavetes moved into directing independent films with acting as something to help pay the bills. Martin Ritt would work on a range of films deemed ‘liberal’ including other ‘men at work’ pictures and others with black protagonists. He again worked with Sidney Poitier, alongside Paul Newman Joanne Woodward, in Paris Blues (1961) and later with Cicely Tyson as part of a sharecropping family in the South in the 1930s in Sounder (1972). Despite my misgivings Edge of the City is definitely a film worth watching and an interesting step forward for Sidney Poitier.
Sidney Poitier died aged 94 on January 6th and I’d like to acknowledge his considerable contribution to cinema over a career lasting 50 years. I think, as a young filmgoer in the 1950s and 1960s especially, I didn’t really appreciate his work and I’ve been interested to read some of the obituaries and accounts of his career. There are only two posts on Poitier on this blog at the moment, even though I saw several more of his films many years ago. The reason for my under-appreciation of his work is probably focused on the 1960s in particular and the way in which his screen persona was understood by a significant part of the audience, i.e. that he seemed to be cast as a particular African American ‘type’ in the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘good Negro’ (as the language had it then) or the ‘magic Negro’ and, most damning by some of his detractors, a ‘Tom’ figure. His contemporary Harry Belafonte was cast as a different type and one that was perhaps more palatable for the audiences I identified with. I thought I’d test out some ideas about Poitier’s career by focusing first on his début featured role in the 1950 film No Way Out.
No Way Out is what I think of as a social problem picture. These were produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s by several studios and the American films tended to be ‘harder’ than their equivalents in the UK. I note that American writers tend to refer to films like No Way Out as films noirs but I think of them more like crime melodramas. Race was one of the issues that formed the focus for some of the Hollywood films and in this film Poitier plays a newly-qualified doctor whose first job in the hospital where he finished his training finds him on the ‘prison ward’ and required to attend to two men who have been shot in the legs by police officers during an attempted robbery at a petrol station. Poitier (as Dr. Brooks) discovers that they are two brothers. One is a loudmouth racist who has to be restrained. He is lively and angry but his brother is clearly very ill. It looks as if the shooting has exacerbated an underlying condition and Brooks attempts an unusual but appropriate procedure to alleviate the condition. He is unsuccessful and the man dies. The brother who is watching screams “Murderer!”. The hospital management decides to do nothing, satisfied that Brooks had followed an appropriate form of treatment, but Brooks himself wants an autopsy to show that he was justified (even though it might show his diagnosis was wrong). To do that he needs the permission of the next of kin. The racist brother is unlikely to comply. But there are other close relatives . . .
Poitier was only 22 when he made this, his first credited feature film. He was only fourth-billed but he is in many ways the central character. Top billing went to Richard Widmark who took the role of the racist brother reluctantly. Widmark himself was a late entrant to Hollywood features after an early and successful stage career. In his first role for 20th Century Fox as the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947) he had received a nomination for an Academy Award as ‘Best Supporting Actor’ (and won a Golden Globe). But he was becoming wary of other similar roles and the story goes that during the shoot of No Way Out he frequently apologised to Poitier for his terrifying performance as the racist thug, Ray Biddle. “It’s the role, it isn’t me!” he told Poitier. But Widmark would have realised that this would be a superior film, written (with Lesser Samuels) and directed by Joe Mankiewicz in the same year as All About Eve. The other two leading players are Stephen McNally and Linda Darnell. McNally plays Poitier’s boss Dr. Wharton and Darnell is the dead man’s ex-wife. This was an ‘A’ production for Fox, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck with Milton Krasner as cinematographer and Alfred Newman in charge of music. What is significant about the film is that Poitier is provided with a proper family background with Ruby Dee as his sister Connie and Ossie Davis as his brother Jack. Both these actors would go on to be major African American actors with long careers. Poitier’s wife is played by Mildred Joanne Smith who had a serious accident a couple of years later which hampered her career prospects. She was billed alongside Poitier whereas Dee and Davis were uncredited. The family provides an element of melodrama, emphasising the relatively poor background from which Dr. Brooks has worked hard to qualify as a doctor. It also provides a ‘way in’ to the central dramatic incident of the film, a major clash between the denizens of ‘Beaver Canal’, the run-down home district of the Biddle brothers, and the black youth of the city as we follow Jack in setting up an ambush.
I think this is a very interesting film and I enjoyed it very much. I don’t want to spoil your narrative pleasure if you are able to find it on streamers so I’m not going to outline the plot in detail. All I’ll say is that it is unusual to have an organised black ‘resistance’ in a mainstream Hollywood film, but the fight between the two groups is not the climax of the action. That will involve the four central characters. Dr. Brooks is the target for Ray Biddle, working with his older brother George (Harry Bellaver) who is (again in the language of the period) ‘deaf and dumb’. In what may be a subtle commentary on the treatment of people with ‘disabilities’, the script suggests that the police and hospital assume that George does not understand everything that happens. But he lipreads very well and is very capable of helping Ray escape from custody and track down Brooks. Meanwhile Edie, the ex-wife, is used by Ray to help locate Brooks. In terms of the racism discourse, the key character in the narrative is Dr. Wharton.
Wharton represents another ‘type’ – the white liberal who believes that he has found the rational position inside a racist society. He attempts to deal with the situation that Dr. Brooks finds himself in by asserting that he supports Brooks as a ‘good doctor’, not because he is a ‘Negro doctor’ in a difficult position. He thus finds himself between Brooks, who understands his own position quite clearly, and the head of the hospital who is worried by the newspaper report of the incident. In order to better understand the arguments about Poitier’s acting persona I acquired a copy of The Poitier Effect: Racial Melodrama and Fantasies of Reconciliation by Sharon Willis (University of Minnesota Press 2015). Unfortunately Ms Willis does not, as far as I can see at the moment, discuss No Way Out. Instead she focuses on what she sees as Poitier the ‘teacher’ whether in teacher roles such as To Sir With Love (US-UK 1967), as a student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) or an escaped convicted man in The Defiant Ones (US 1958). In the first of these Poitier as a Caribbean migrant teaches white London kids. In the second he challenges Glenn Ford as his white teacher and in the third he tries to show Tony Curtis how to survive on the run. Different roles but in each he teaches a white character and by extension a white audience. The outcome of this is not, however, to instigate an exchange of ideas and understanding but more to show that a black man can be useful/helpful etc. – and therefore not threatening. Willis extends this analysis to include Poitier’s role in In the Heat of the Night (1967). I’ve just watched that so some analysis will follow.
I was really impressed with this film, especially the way that Joe Mankiewicz included so many other black characters alongside Poitier. He isn’t a lone figure and the other black characters don’t necessarily agree with him. It’s interesting, however, that when actors like Amanda Randolph appear in stills from the film, they are still not credited. Watch this trailer on YouTube and you should find your way to a decent copy of the film. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I was.
Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made Buck and the Preacher in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African American cinema and the Western.
The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.
The history of African American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).
Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.
Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.
I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes