Synopsis: Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) has just finished his internship and passed the state licensing exam, officially making him the first full-fledged black doctor in the city. However, still feeling a bit wet behind the ears, he decides to spend an extra year training in the hospital prison ward under the tutelage of Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally). This proves to be his downfall when he is forced to treat two would-be burglars, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) and his brother Johnny, both shot in the leg trying to rob a gas station. They’re from the poor side of town, Beaver Canal, and Ray doesn’t take kindly at all to being treated by a black doctor. But Dr. Brooks suspects there’s something besides a superficial gunshot wound to Johnny’s symptoms. Brooks attempts a spinal tap on Johnny, suspecting he may have a brain tumor, while Ray screams at the doctor to stop killing his brother. When Johnny dies during the procedure, Dr. Brooks needs an autopsy to determine if he really did have a brain tumor – or if Brooks inadvertently let Ray’s racist epithets get to him and did in fact kill Johnny with the spinal tap. Knowing the autopsy could prove Dr. Brooks’ innocence, Ray as next of kin refuses to allow the procedure. Drs. Brooks and Wharton must appeal to Johnny’s ex-wife Edie (Linda Darnell) to convince Ray to change his mind. But is she prepared to deny everything she was taught in Beaver Canal to give a black man a fair chance at justice? Is it even possible to sway Ray’s racist reasoning?
First of all, huge apologies for being M.I.A. the past few weeks and posting my contribution to this wonderful blogathon at the last possible second. I have been a baaad little blogger, and there’s really no excuse, so I’d rather not waste time trying to explain and just jump right into this review. I’m not too experienced in the ways of film noir – as is evidenced by my first noir review, where I’m positively shocked by the film’s pessimistic outlook on life! – but the first time I heard about this blogathon, I knew I had to participate. I thoroughly enjoyed my first blogathon just a month ago and was eager to contribute to another, especially one supporting the noble cause of film preservation. Because, if the purpose of this fundraiser is to preserve the noir genre and keep it from dying out – well, then, I’m one of the main beneficiaries, aren’t I? I am new to noir and still learning; it’s only natural that I’d want to help preserve this unique period in cinema history so that I can continue to have examples, both classic and obscure, to learn from. I don’t want to just read about noir in books, I want to be able to see it and feel it, so that I can learn directly from the source, make my own observations, and let noir affect me the way it affected audiences when it was originally released, feel for myself that unsettling and foreboding atmosphere that made it a unique genre (or at least a unique style, if you want to debate the genre aspects). Think of the example of silent film: sure, we film nerds love ’em, but how many laypeople know the first thing about early cinema, or indeed have any interest in knowing? So few of our silent films are left to learn from, which leads to a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy: if we don’t have examples, we can’t learn from them, and if we haven’t learned from them, we don’t care enough to preserve what’s left of the examples. For the good of cinema, and for the good of education and entertainment, film preservation is indeed noble work.
What really clinched my participation in this event was perusing the examples of noir films and seeing that Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s No Way Out was among them. A few months ago I had just completed Sidney Poitier’s autobiographical The Measure of a Man, which naturally piqued my interest in viewing some of his films again. I watched No Way Out, his very first movie (although he has an enormous role for someone so inexperienced), and jumped on the chance to review it for the blogathon, as I knew writing a review would force me to watch the film again, and again, and again. With a movie like this, I knew it wouldn’t pose a problem. After just one viewing, this instantly went on my must-own list; and after taking a break from classic film for a few weeks, watching No Way Out a second time for this review just reminded me all over again why I love classic movies, and why I feel compelled to write about them.
What’s inevitable when talking about Poitier is the acknowledgement that he was the golden boy of a tumultuous era’s new kind of “race film;” not the all-black affairs catered specifically to African American audiences from the 1930s and ’40s, but the movies that sought to specifically tackle the issues of race and racism in the 1950s and ’60s. Of course the best-known example is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967, a movie which is considered groundbreaking by film historians yet viewed as totally old-fashioned and silly by most younger audiences seeing the film today. While these films were indeed monumental in their frank depictions of race at the time of their release, our understanding of racism today shows that the majority of these movies only superficially explored these issues, and did not do enough to examine and uncover the more pervasive and systematic causes of racism that still plague our culture today.
In No Way Out, while Poitier still very much plays the saintly, well-educated, professional black man who maintains his shining dignity and flawless moral superiority in the face of tremendous obstacles, there are black people around him who aren’t so passive, who don’t just sit back and take whatever abuse is hurled at them. These characters – most specifically the elevator operator Lefty, played by Dots Johnson, and Brooks’ brother-in-law John, played by Ossie Davis – are not depicted as cowardly, or stupid, or looking for any excuse to fight; they are depicted as human beings who have human emotions and human reactions. Although the violence in which they participate is condemned by the film, their inclination to fight back is understandable and rendered completely relatable; you don’t blame them for reacting this way, you simply accept it as an alternative to Poitier’s rock-solid stoicism. As Lefty so powerfully puts it, “Ain’t that asking a lot, for us to be better than them when we get killed just trying to prove we’re as good.” He’s got a good point there, and the film does little to try to refute it.
This ambiguous moral direction is supported by the fact that, for the vast majority of the film, Poitier’s upstanding dignity and unwavering faith in justice do not get him anywhere. This, I believe, is what truly makes No Way Out a film noir. In later pictures, Poitier’s character would have won by some shear twist of fate, by divine justice prevailing, and would have been rewarded for his faith in the end. In this film, justice does come out in his favor – and it doesn’t make one lick of difference to the people who hate him and want him dead. Ray Biddle ultimately doesn’t care about the results of his brother’s autopsy, even though he does everything in his power to prevent the autopsy from happening; it doesn’t matter to him whether Dr. Brooks is exonerated or not, because to him Brooks is not a human being entitled to a fair trial. It doesn’t matter if Brooks is guilty of killing Ray’s brother, because Brooks will always be guilty of being black, which is the crime he has ultimately committed against Ray. He’s black, yet he’s still better than Ray, and that is the sin which Ray finds so unforgivable. Even if Ray has to break down and accept Brooks’ help in the end, we still don’t know what will happen after the film’s close. No indication is given that Ray Biddle has in any way changed his opinion of Dr. Brooks; he has to be bleeding profusely and suffering from fever-induced insanity to even let Brooks touch him. As the movie ends, we get the feeling that Brooks will continue to take the moral high ground, and Biddle will continue to seethe with hate and anger, and they – or their types – will continue to clash repeatedly until one or the other either gives up or dies.
Even more extraordinary to me than the nuanced depiction of the black characters is the depiction of the other side, of Ray Biddle and his ilk from Beaver Canal. While of course the film sides against racism, it illustrates the very important notion that hate does not exist in a vacuum, and racists are not just racist for the sake of it. While Ray Biddle is a completely abhorrent, manipulative, and all-around unpleasant guy, I often felt sorry for him when I got a glimpse of his vulnerabilities. I think this is due in large part to an expertly subtle performance by Richard Widmark. Between the vitriol, sarcasm, and double-talk, there is a hint of fear in Biddle’s voice, which especially comes out when he speaks of his dead brother. Ray is an uneducated guy being forced to understand a very complex situation, the facts of which go against everything he has personally observed and has been raised to believe. Furthermore, Biddle is ultimately jealous of Brooks, because in all their differences, he sees similarity. Both come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but one was able to beat the odds, while the other gets left behind to wallow in the gutter. In Beaver Canal, Biddle was poor, dirty, and uneducated, but at least he was a white male, which gave him an advantage of privilege over any black person. Now he is thrown into a situation where he’s been shot just trying to survive, just trying to steal money so that he and his family can get by, and the first thing he’s confronted with is a black doctor. Ray has to acknowledge that he is better than no one, that he is now the bottom rung, and he can’t take it. He can’t allow himself to be devoid of dignity; like everything else, he has to get it any way he can.
Linda Darnell as Edie Johnson, another resident of Beaver Canal, is the most conflicted character in the movie, but by movie convention also the most one-dimensional. She is at a pivotal point in her life where she has made the decision to pull herself up from the sewer of Beaver Canal, but has to fight not to allow herself to get dragged back down by the Biddles. At first vacillating between a desire for justice and a familial affection for Beaver Canal, she ultimately winds up detesting Ray with just as much vitriol as he detests Brooks (but, admittedly, with good reason, and not just based on the color of his skin but also on the fact that, you know, he kidnapped and beat her). However, as Brooks proves in the end, her anger and hatred, even if they are for Beaver Canal, are still a product of Beaver Canal and her upbringing; if she really wants to join Dr. Brooks on the moral high-road, she still has a ways to go to overcome those base emotions and violent tendencies.
Not only is the story well-crafted and expertly acted; the film itself is also beautifully shot and scored, which add to the realism and intensify the drama. There is a particular scene where the black residents are about to get the jump on the white residents of Beaver Canal, who are in a junkyard preparing for a brutal attack on the black part of town. As the ambushers slowly creep in to make their assault, the music maintains a constant trilling and a steady thudding pulse, punctuating by occasional high notes. The music crescendos as a flare gun is fired, serving both as a signal to the rest of the black posse and as a momentary distraction to the white mob; the firing of the shot is barely even audible, to us or to the Beaver Canal crowd – but as the flare reaches altitude and suddenly glows a blinding white, the music stops dead and the whole scene is fully illuminated. We see the residents of Beaver Canal looking up at the flare, puzzled and still, for a few agonizing seconds, until finally the silence is broken by the descent of the angry black mob. Brother, that is a scene that sticks with you.
To me this film’s understanding of the intersections of race and class, and of racism and poverty, is magnificently well-rounded and realistic. It doesn’t give any answers, but it thoroughly explains the problem in a way I’ve never seen a film of this era do before. While movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may feel dated in their simplistic and specific depictions of the “troubles” of racism, and may inadvertently seem to insult the intelligence of modern audiences, the subject matter of No Way Out is still fresh and completely relevant today. Of course classic films don’t have to maintain their relevance for me to like them; I’m just illustrating the point that this one especially does, and is therefore extremely worthwhile for anyone, not just film buffs. If only film noir and the conflict of racism had intersected more often; I feel as though the gritty, realistic storytelling of noir is perfectly suited to creating an accurate depiction of the nuances of race relations. This is not only a ground-breaking movie for its time, but an incredibly important film that I feel should still be used in classrooms today for its nuanced depiction of racial and socioeconomic conflict. And if you’re not into “learning while you watch,” well then, just see it because it’s a darn good movie, period. I’m so glad I got to see it; just imagine all the other undiscovered gems out there that are just rotting away, unrestored and forgotten (hint hint, donation button below).
No Way Out (1950) – 5/5 stars