ON DVD & BLU-RAY
No Way Out (1950) starring Sidney Poitier Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
An encounter with a racist
Sidney Poitier plays a young African-American doctor named Luther Brooks who tends to a pair of hoodlum brothers named Ray and Johnny Biddle (played by Richard Widmark and Dick Paxton respectively) who have been injured in a shootout with police while attempting to rob a gas station. They are placed together in a secure ward for him to examine them.
The latter brother is in a more serious condition and thus Dr. Brooks decides to tend to his wounds first. However, while he puts Johnny under examination, Ray lays into him with a continuous succession of racial slurs. When he assesses that Johnny has been afflicted with a brain tumour, he attempts a spinal tap procedure. Unfortunately, while he is carrying this out, his patient dies on the operating table. Ray screams out, accusing Brooks of deliberately murdering him.
Having been shaken by the torrent of abuse, Brooks asks his superior, Dr. Daniel Wharton (Stephen McNally) to order an autopsy on Johnny’s body so as he can be reassured that his diagnosis was correct. First, however, they have to seek permission from family members in order to do so and, needless to say, the deeply prejudiced Ray refuses. The two doctors then decide to pay a visit to the man’s widow, Edie (Linda Darnell) in order to seek the necessary permission from her instead. She reveals that she divorced Johnny some time ago and wants nothing to do with the rest of his family. Instead, however, they manage to convince her to go and see Ray - with whom she had an affair behind Johnny’s back - and persuade him to allow the autopsy. Unfortunately, this manipulative criminal convinces her that the two doctors are conspiring to cover up (what he claims to be) his brother’s murder at Brooks’s hands. He gets her to tell the fellow members of Ray’s gang about this, thus putting in motion a planned revenge attack on the local black neighbourhood.
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Sidney Poitier’s impressive debut
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film noir No Way Out provided Sidney Poitier with his movie acting debut. His rise to stardom was particularly notable because he paved the way for African-American leading men to become acceptable in US cinema, in a time when racial segregation and other examples of deeply entrenched prejudice were a fact of life in a number of states. Indeed, his films often tackled this very subject head-on, as is the case here.
Aside from its then-progressive politics, No Way Out is a surprisingly brutal film for its era. Even when watched today, it’s an uncomfortably hard-hitting experience due to the fact that so much of the dialogue is littered with aggressively-delivered racial slurs - most of them from the mouth of Richard Widmark’s Ray. On the other hand, some of the characterisation and overall delivery of the central message does feel a bit heavy-handed. Poitier’s Brooks is a real paragon of virtue, not quite saintly but close enough. Ray, on the other hand, is pretty much a Satan to his Jesus: a thoroughly hateful, vindictive, nasty, ruthless, scheming and manipulative common criminal. Don’t get me wrong: racism is completely unacceptable under any circumstances. However, its portrayal here is too simplistic to truly get to the core of a complex and deep-rooted social issue.
On the other hand, the performances of the two leads (or de-facto leads, since Poitier was only billed fourth here) succeed in bringing the central conflict to life in a truly vivid manner. Despite his lack of experience in front of the camera, Poitier is eloquent and subtly engaging enough to be the star of the show, yet he has a certain streak of human vulnerability which makes his character believable. Widmark, on the other hand, simply oozes a seething unpleasantness that really gets under the skin. Watching his memorable screen villainy here and his palpable sense of on-screen antagonism with Poitier, it’s amazing to learn that Widmark was, in fact, a staunch Hollywood liberal and that both actors were lifelong friends. Stephen McNally is solid as a white liberal doctor who is supportive of Brooks’s cause. It was quite an unusual role for him because he was generally typecast as villains. However, one of the best performances here comes from Linda Darnell, who plays arguably the most interesting character in the whole film. Her role as Edie is the most archetypically noir here, a hard-bitten woman who provides the film’s main wild card. She gets some terrific lines of dialogue, such as this classic retort when Dr. Wharton notes that she seems to be concerned about the fate of her ex-husband’s brother:
“Because I asked how he was? You ask that about a sick alley cat.”
Amongst the supporting cast, Harry Belaver is notable as George, the third brother in the Biddle family - a deaf-mute who, for once, isn’t portrayed as a put-upon victim. He’s as much of a thug as the rest of Ray’s crew and has a handy talent for eavesdropping by reading the lip movements of other unsuspecting characters. Ossie Davis also turns in a strong piece of work as Luther Brooks’s facially-scarred, angry, militant brother.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz delivers some memorable setpieces here, the best of which is a nighttime race riot in a junkyard shown largely from a bird’s eye view under the atmospheric illumination of a flare. There’s also a creatively-handled Hitchcockian scene involving Edie crafting an escape from the deaf George by turning the radio up to a volume sufficient to bring some riled-up neighbours to the door of the room in which she is detained.
While No Way Out isn’t the most subtle or nuanced study of the ugly subject of racism, it certainly makes an impact. Recommended equally to fans of Hollywood message movies and classic film noir.
Runtime: 106 mins
Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Script: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Lesser Samuels
Starring: Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Sidney Poitier, Mildred Joanne Smith, Harry Bellaver, Stanley Ridges, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Amanda Randolph, Dick Paxton
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
One or two shots are a little soft but otherwise, it looks great. That noir atmosphere comes across in vivid, beautiful detail. No complaints sound-wise either - that “escape by radio” scene works particularly well here.
Film noir historian and author Eddie Muller delivers a soft-spoken, intermittent commentary here. His interesting discussion takes in the controversies that the film faced at the time. While it was well-received in large cities such as New York, its progressive racial politics were too much for certain Southern states and backwoods communities. Indeed, several U.S. censorship bodies wanted the race riot scene cut - something which Mankiewicz refused to do. It also fell off the radar for many years as the racial slur-heavy dialogue meant that TV networks wouldn’t show it.
While it was a strong debut for Sidney Poitier, it would still take some years for American audiences to fully accept the idea of an African-American leading man (unless they were singers/dancers such as Harry Belafonte). During the 1960s peak of his stardom, things turned full circle as he suffered something of a backlash; some critics and radical black commentators opining that he sold out by portraying African-Americans figures in a socially respectable manner which was non-threatening to mainstream white audiences. Richard Widmark, meanwhile, initially didn’t want to play the film’s villain, partially because he was transitioning to Hollywood leading man status himself at this point, and partially because the character’s racist language and attitudes disgusted him. However, director Mankiewicz convinced him of the worth of the film’s overall message. Although Widmark initially made his name by playing antagonists, in real life he was renowned for being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.
Muller also discusses the originally written, much bleaker ending, involving Ray forcing Luther to dig his own grave behind the coal shed and burying him in it. Surprisingly, it was changed not because of its downbeat tone, but because Poitier’s skin was too dark to show up against the black coal!
All About Mankiewicz - Part One: A Life in Films and Part Two: Working in Hollywood
This two-part 1983 documentary (lasting over 100 minutes in total) was broadcast on French television and consists of a rather dry series of interviews with Mankiewicz which were conducted in various locations, including New York and Cold War-era Berlin. He may have been a great director but as an interviewee, boy, does he ramble on and on. There’s not really anything here that’s related to the film it comes packaged with on this disc - and if you’re not a major buff of the man himself then you probably won’t last the distance.
Fox Movietone Newsreels
A couple of brief but interesting newsreel snippets feature here. The first features Linda Darnell selling tickets as a publicity stunt for the film’s world premiere. The second shows Richard Widmark putting his handprints in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
A theatrical trailer and enclosed booklet round out the extras.
No Way Out is yet another fine piece of classic-era cinema to have been given a solid Eureka Entertainment release.