--I got my own troubles, Martin.
Grim. Bleak. Miserable. These are all words that aptly describe the 1950 "social problem" noir Edge of Doom. Itís 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: what was often referred to as the American Dream. Opportunities abound along the broad avenues, all of which lead down to a picturesque blue sea.
Just as the dream 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 isnít any single metropolis, but that all cities are responsible 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 with 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; its neighborhoods function less like communities than they do cell blocks that segregate and confine. And unlike the downtowns of so many other film noirs, this one is indifferent: it punishes 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, 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 Andrewsí presence, Farley Granger is Edge of Doomís 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 Martinís hard work but is either unable or disinclined to give him a raise. The film makes cleaar that there is essentially no means by which a young man of Martinís status and circumstances can lift himself out of the urban blight, even if he didnít 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 motherís tuberculosis, but the cost of doing so is prohibitive, and thereís no father to help out: Martinís 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.
The self-murder of the father is the pivotal event in Edge of Doom ó even though it predates the action of the film. Itís the fatherís demise that plunges Martin and his mother irrevocably into Skid Row tenement life. More importantly for a film that touches upon religion, this event triggers Martinís grudge against the church for refusing the suicide a Christian burial. Now, as the frail old woman lies dying, she asks her son repeatedly to summon the priest--but 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 Martinís wrath--Kirkman is the same priest who refused to bury Martinís dad. Mrs. Lally decides to wait for Father Roth, but itís too late: she goes to Martinís 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. Does he see Martin as an easy mark, or does he decide to wise him up to the ways of the world? His decision to dispense worldly "advice has a profound affect on the shocked and impressionable Martin, and paves the way for the filmís primary drama to unfold.
Itís here, in Edge of Doomís most powerful scene, that Stewart earns his paycheck. His squinty eyes appear skull-like and hollow under the mean light of a bare bulb--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:
ďNobody lends you money, a kid like you: driving a truck, delivering flowers, making thirty bucks a week. Youíre a bad risk. Money, money! Thatís all that counts in this rat race. If you got it theyíll bury you like a queen. If you ainít theyíll 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 oughta go out in style, like a somebody; the world owes it to her. Itís 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.Ē
Mr. Craig steps into the kitchen to get Martin his coffee. He returns to find the boy has quietly slipped out. 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.
Martin walks to the rectory and rings the bell, where he glimpses Father Kirkman pacing in his study. Like all such young men Martin is filled with rage, the sort of unfocused ire that pines 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 berates him for denying his mother the last rites. Fueled by Mr. Craigís words, Martin lets loose, 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 orders the boy away. When the priest turns, Martin grabs a heavy brass crucifix from the desk and bludgeons him, shouting in a way that would bring unintentional laughs were the film not so dark, ďI want a big funeral!Ē
Aghast at himself, 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--though they believe him to have committed a different crime: it turns out somebody just robbed the Galaxy Theater...
The final hour of the film unfolds along two lines: it juxtaposes Martinís relentless (and eventually tedious) efforts to secure his mother a decent funeral, and his desperate attempts to elude justice. Its downward arc is ultimately demoralizing, but director Mark Robson manages to keep things tense throughout. It would be interesting to see the original cut, for the film was pulled after faring poorly in its initial release; 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.
The world in 1950 was still sifting through various forms of chaos--people were struggling to recover from the tumult of war; confused over a changing social and domestic order; frightened of nuclear annihilation; cynical about the failed promises of life after victory. Urban life had become too indifferent for jaded people to get worked up over the loss of what Father Kirkman calls ďa simple woman.Ē Life in the big city goes on; the insensitivity of everyday people doesnít give Martin the right to act out. Like everyone else, he must adjust to things as they are--but he 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 tellingly--no answers.
It confronts us with a troubling vision of postwar urban life and overlays a tepid message of redemption amidst squalor: it's a film that knows it's peddling a phony, outdated message. Consequently itís distasteful--but, fascinatingly, it lacks that buffering veneer of artifice that allows us to safely give ourselves to a film. The rain-soaked streets and back alleys of film noir are alluring because they shimmer, awash in an intoxicating play of light and shadow. We are drawn in to hat is 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. We enjoy those illusions knowing that they will be stylishly shattered.
Edge of Doom, on the other hand, seems awfully damn real.