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DVD SAVANT

No Way Out
Fox Film Noir


No Way Out
Fox Film Noir 13
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 106 min. / Street Date March 7, 2006 / 14.98
Starring Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Mildred Joanne Smith, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Stanley Ridges, Amanda Randolph
Cinematography Milton Krasner
Art Direction George W. Davis, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Barbara McLean
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Lesser Samuels
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

No Way Out is Darryl F. Zanuck's attempt to meet the race issue head-on, using a black actor in a leading role. It's probably most famous as Sidney Poitier's screen debut. Although certain aspects of the movie date its message about racial hatred, it's notable for pulling no punches in the dialogue department -- the vicious lowlife played by Richard Widmark uses the word "nigger" constantly, along with at least half a dozen other racial epithets.

The film is written and directed by Fox's stellar filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz, proving that Zanuck was willing to commit his top talent to his social issue movies. No Way Out plays as a satisfactory melodrama and has even greater significance as a milestone in Hollywood movies -- African Americans are portrayed for perhaps the first time as equals on the same dramatic plane as Anglos, with flaws as well as positive qualities.

Synopsis:

Black hospital intern Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) adminsters a spinal tap to Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton) a thief under arrest in the prison ward with his manic, racist brother Ray (Richard Widmark), also under arrest and wounded. Biddle dies, and Ray (Richard Widmark) claims it was murder. Using Johnny's ex-wife Edie (Linda Darnell), Ray succeeds in getting a huge race riot started over the incident. As it seems to be the only way to clear his name, Luther forces an autopsy by turning himself in for the murder of Johnny, supported by his resident supervisor Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally). But Ray plans to pay Luther back for his brother's death no matter what the findings are.

No Way Out goes a dozen steps beyond earlier Hollywood forays into racial consciousness. Stanley Kramer's Home of the Brave was 90 minutes of position speeches, a theater piece transferred to film.  2  Zanuck's own Pinky dodged more issues than it confronted -- some viewers may have left the theater thinking that the movie was about a poor white girl, Jeanne Craine being mistaken for black. A black doctor shows up as a minor character in Pinky and is briefly seen working in black neighborhoods "where he belongs." He doesn't seem quite real. In contrast, Sidney Poitier strides into the public hospital in No Way Out as the leading character, though not with star billing. Dr. Luther Brooks is a humble and professional intern, certain that he needs more experience while his supervisor claims he's the best new doctor on the staff.

Joe Mankiewicz's portrayal of Luther's home life is also a huge leap forward. The Brooks household looks just like a "white" home. It's neither a shack nor a Gospel meeting hall and there aren't any professional comedians in the family. Luther has a friendly brother, John (Ossie Davis, uncredited) a smart sister-in-law (Ruby Dee, uncredited, Davis' wife in real life) and a dedicated mother who is not being idealized to Soul-of-The-Earth status. Mankiewicz picks Luther's fresh-faced wife (Mildred Joanne Smith) to deliver the script's heaviest speeches, and the movie comes to a thudding halt at least twice while she vocalizes the Author's Lofty Sentiments about social optimism.

Luther not only has support at home, the hospital staff is solidly behind him as well. Stephen McNally stands up for Luther several times, making it clear that his interest is professional and not racial. Even the harried hospital administrator is entirely benevolent when it comes to young interns of any race. Luther is asked to cover the emergency ward and seems to be the only medico on hand for most of the picture.

The big conflict in No Way Out is between Luther and Richard Widmark's Ray, a verminous racist from the white-trash neighborhood of this unnamed city. Mankiewicz calls the slum Beaver Canal, suggesting that these dirty lowlifes live in a literally constipated sewer. The locals seem to do nothing but drink beer, act loutish toward women and sit around hating their black neighbors. No mercy is shown Ray Biddle or his Beaver Canal buddies, exemplified by the uncouth Bert Freed, a fat thug in a dirty T-shirt who becomes a slavering maniac as he practices for the big fight. There are similiarites here with West Side Story, but Mankiewicz and Zanuck stop short of portraying the actual riot combat. Unlike the Jets-vs-Sharks musical, No Way Out doesn't lament gang fighting and then devote a reel to glamorizing it.

With his poor white characters established as racist Morlocks, Mankiewicz has no problem characterizing the black counter-mob as righteous reactionaries. In a scene that seems an inverted miniature of the Clan action in Gone with the Wind Luther's brother John goes out to join the mob battle with his mother's quiet approval.

The slimy Bert Freed character makes unwanted advances at the widow of the white man whose honor is being avenged, Linda Darnell's Edie Johnson. Edie is given almost equal time with Dr. Brooks; she's a disenchanted ex-resident of Beaver Canal tricked into helping start the race riot when Ray tells her lies about who is responsible. Edie is the only character that leans into noir territory. Unlike the rest of the socially-aligned cast of characters, she succumbs to the misery of her past -- it's implied that she sullied her self-image by having sex with Ray, her brother-in-law -- and must fight her way out of darkness. Mankiewicz puts her in a black leather jacket to symbolize her moral collapse; after the big riot, she's the one who undergoes a crisis of character.

The rest of the story plays out in thriller terms as the stubbornly murderous Ray goes to outrageous lengths to kill Luther. Although he gets top billing Richard Widmark's has the thankless role of all time. He's hissably rotten to the point where we can imagine a tough delinquent audience cheering him -- if this were the kind of film to attract hoodlum audiences.  1 Mankiewicz puts at least two too many unlikely scenes into the stew. Poor Mildred Joanne Smith is given script rescue duty, delivering a strained speech that short-cuts a lot of plot activity -- Luther's decision to turn himself in for murder all happens screen. Also, the ending juggles its ironies much too patly. Luther ends up treating the man who just tried to kill him, invoking a high-toned moral argument that would soon become a cliché of 50s liberal scriptwriting: "I won't let him die, because that would make me just like him!"

No Way Out is ostentatious about its courage, and like all of Zanuck's socially conscious films the bravery is a sincere but relatively toothless gesture. Sidney Poitier did not return in a few months starring in a musical opposite Betty Grable. While auditioning, Poitier told Zanuck he was 28 when he was really 23; it wasn't until five years later when he really was 28 that he got his next significant role -- playing a 17 year-old in Blackboard Jungle. Zanuck would make these 'daring' films and then market them in the most surreptitious ways. No Way Out's poster artwork uses a progressive graphic style but the trailer and marketing obscure the film's progressive theme. The main tagline describes the movie as, "Entertainment that challenges your own ability to experience the emotions of others."  Say what?


Fox's DVD of No Way Out is a fine transfer of this B&W show; it will attract noir fans as well as devotées of Sidney Poitier and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (whose Guys and Dolls is due out soon in a special edition). The basic extras include a trailer, some stills that look a lot like screen grabs and two Movietone newsreels. One shows Linda Darnell selling tickets for the film's rather under-attended opening engagement in New York -- I wonder if she worked a 6 or 8-hour shift? The other has Richard Widmark getting his handprints set in concrete in the forecourt of Sid Grauman's Chinese theater. A poster behind Widmark is for David O. Selznick's Portrait of Jennie, which came out in 1948 and was reportedly a bomb. Was Selznick still re-releasing it as late as 1950, at such a big theater, or did Widmark really get the honor in conjunction with Kiss of Death?

The killer extra is Eddie Muller's excellent commentary. Noir expert Muller has developed a relaxed and engaging "folksy hardboiled" delivery that dispenses just what we want to know about the movie when we want to know it. When he hits on a familiar topic, he touches on all the best facts -- he stresses actor Richard Widmark's major discomfort with his dialogue without sounding apologetic. When he introduces unfamiliar material, it's always fascinating. More than a few of the observations above come direct from Muller's commentary.

Muller also has a sure hand when dealing with the film's racial content. In our current days of P.C. confusion, Ray Biddle's incendiary epithets are far less acceptable than profanity (4-letter to 12-letter), and Muller leaves holes in his speech for the worst to come through. In 1950 talk like this was not unusual. It was indeed courageous to simply bring it out on-screen, and essential to not give anyone the idea that it was acceptable -- hence the horrible Ray Biddle character.

Muller tells us that No Way Out was not a success and offers the explanation that mass audiences in 1950 didn't want to be preached to in such harsh terms. He implies that the movie had a tough time in the South, when it probably didn't get shown much there at all. And in 1950, Mom and Dad were surely more interested in escapism like Annie Get Your Gun than a movie with racial profanity and race riots!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, No Way Out rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Eddie Muller, trailer, stills, newsreels
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 4, 2006


Footnote:

1. All the street hood kids were probably down the street enjoying James Cagney's savagery in White Heat!.
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2. Home of the Brave did give us James Edwards, who played a leading role in a Hollywood picture before Poitier and went on (although blacklisted) to be seen in several classics: Sam Fuller's Steel Helmet, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate among them. Edwards was politically outspoken; along with Paul Robeson, he provided Poitier with an excellent example of what happens when a black actor bucks the system.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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