Most film noir depicts a man pushed around by malevolent or indifferent forces, causing him to make bad decisions and behave in ways totally out of character. A world of moral ambiguity, pressures from a criminal underworld, the temptations of a dangerous woman can conspire to remove a man from a place of safety, complacency and moral respectability, and cast him into a world of uncertainty and danger from which, if he emerges with his life, he is forever wounded and scarred.
Edge of Doom places its protagonist in a slightly different environment from typical noir. It isn’t the sudden attention of a scheming blonde or the lure of fast riches that propels Martin Lynn’s world into chaos, it is poverty. In Edge of Doom, living among the city’s poor means everyday navigating the edge of a pit of degradation and potential ruin into which anyone could be cast by countless ordinary life events. When you’re poor and alone in the city, the stress of everyday existence is limitless and unceasing, and the threat of annihilation is always present.
Played by Farley Granger, Martin Lynn would like to get enough money together to marry his girlfriend and move his mother to a climate more beneficial to her health. Although his mother is devoted to her Catholic faith, Lynn still harbors a grudge against the church, and Father Kirkman in particular, for refusing to allow his father’s burial in consecrated ground due to suicide. After Lynn’s boss refuses to give him a raise and his mother succumbs to her illness, a desperate Lynn, overcome by grief and alienation, attempts to secure a no expense spared, lavish funeral for his mother. When Father Kirkman waves off Lynn’s unrealistic request, Lynn bashes him over the head with a brass crucifix, killing the priest in an act of impulsive violence. For the rest of the night and the next day, Lynn is driven by an irrational, desperate obsession to assemble all the necessary pieces for a funeral befitting his mother.
The film depicts Lynn alone with his grief. In the moments after his mother’s death, a stunned Lynn emerges from the apartment into a noisy hallway where he gets little sympathy from his neighbors. The residents of his building have struggles of their own. Packed into small apartments, their lives spill out into the hall. One neighbor can barely be bothered to give up the phone so the priest can be notified. To the extent this neighbor offers a sympathetic word to Lynn, it is to horn in on any potential life insurance pay out. Out on the street, Lynn moves through a sea of indifferent souls, he runs and pushes manically from location to location, killing Father Kirkman and threatening violence against others who don’t share his urgency and are unwilling to help.
In one scene, unbeknownst to Lynn, his neighbor has robbed a theater box office. A crowd of gawkers gathers to catch a glimpse of the commotion. Lynn attempts to navigate past the crowd, but as they press in, he keeps getting shoved back toward the crime scene. Eventually the cops witness him running from the throng, and he becomes a suspect in the robbery. The scene is a metaphor for one of the larger themes in the movie. A poor man in a crowded city is hardly free to pursue his own will and desires, but instead is pushed around and tossed about arbitrarily by the city itself, sometimes leading to his downfall. To be poor in this environment invites a ceaseless struggle to maintain one’s dignity, to do what is right, and to live a simple and fulfilled life. In this respect the film seems a precursor to some of the “urban loner” themed movies that would emerge in the seventies.
The on location shooting and deep focus visual framing of the city streets call attention to it as more than just setting but as an additional character in the film. The city, its streets, and the crush of its inhabitants comprise an indifferent force acting upon individuals, especially the poor. The city does not care, but to it’s poor residents, it can seem like it possesses malevolent intentions. In one scene, Father Roth, played by Dana Andrews, comes to blows with a parishioner who beats his wife. After Roth kicks the man’s ass, the wife, who only moments earlier pleaded with Father Roth to help her, ends up comforting her husband, even as the man threatens to beat her when they get home. The scene is strange in that it has nothing to do with the plot of the film, but is certainly in keeping with the idea that the city imposes its will on the poor and can elicit violence from even the most morally upright of its residents. It also shows how its poor can become conditioned to accept violence as an ordinary part of life. The film’s visual style and these strangely placed scenes of social commentary lend a bit of a documentary feel to it.
Lynn’s desperate journey through the city’s streets finally brings him back to his mother’s side, as she lay in her casket, made ready for her funeral. Reminded of his mother’s faith, Lynn receives God’s grace by admitting that he killed Father Kirkman. By this time, Father Roth has already solved the case, but rather than rush to arrest Lynn, Roth and the detectives permit him to make peace with God through confession to his deceased mother. The film’s message seems to convey that although the poverty and squalor of the city can cause a man to degrade himself in unspeakable ways, God’s grace through faith offers transcendence from even the most awful circumstances.