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Bursting Out of Stereotypical Shadows
Sidney Poitier became a movie star in 'No Way Out,' his feature film debut.
Now Streaming: Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth-Century Fox, No Way Out (1950) followed Pinky (1949), a drama about "a young, light-skinned Black woman who passes for white," according to Wikipedia. Both films fit into the studio's post-war social-issue dramas, which found receptive audiences and critical success.
Filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz was on a hot streak at Fox. He'd won two Academy Awards for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and followed that up with the film noir House of Strangers (1950), photographed by Milton Krasner, who had already shot Fritz Lang's noirs The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), and then noir features for other directors: The Dark Mirror (1946), directed by Robert Siodmark, and A Double Life (1947), directed by George Cukor (?!).
Before coming to Fox, Mankiewicz had established himself as a writer at Paramount Pictures and as a writer/producer for MGM, but he wanted to direct. His third picture as a director was the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), so House of Strangers was his second noir and No Way Out would be his third, except that it's not really a noir in the sense that modern film lovers have come to think of as noirs.
Indeed, it was not until the 1970s that "film noir" became a widely accepted category, which coincides with my own interest in learning and thinking more deeply about films of all kinds. By current expectations, then, No Way Out doesn't fit firmly into "film noir," yet it's, at least, 'film noir-adjacent,' and is included in The Criterion Channel's "Fox Noir" collection, which is how the film again caught my eye the wake of Sidney Poitier's recent death.
Mankiewicz penned the original screenplay with veteran screenwriter Lesser Samuels. Poitier, who was just 22 at the time, is introduced as Doctor Luther Brooks, who has recently completed his internship and been offered a permanent position by the chief resident (Stephen McNally). Issues about his race are woven into the opening sequence, which lays the groundwork for his fiery confrontation with Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), who has been brought to the hospital's prison ward for treatment after he and his brother were both shot in the leg during an attempted robbery.
Biddle instantly identifies himself as a virulent racist, which is only inflamed when his brother dies under Luther's care. Blinded by his stubbornly racist ignorance, Biddle believes without hesitation that Luther murdered his brother, a fervent fever dream that quickly sows hateful seeds.
Watching the film again, I was struck, first of all, by the craftsmanship of the script, which constructs characters who respond in sometimes unexpected ways to the narrative, even though they initially appear to be stereotypically good or bad. Ray Biddle, for example, is performed at a high pitch of anger and outrage by Widmark, who is outstandingly evil at an early point in his career, yet his character, as written, comes from an angry and impoverished background; of course he's desperate! It makes sense, even as he dodges his own responsibilities for his behavior and spits out racist insult after racist insult.
Poitier is remarkably good in his feature film debut, giving an impressive performance that makes his character supremely empathetic, even as he allows that he may have made mistakes. Linda Darnell is also excellent as the dead man's widow, who has many reasons to be insulted, yet displays moral strength when it counts. She is not anything like a femme fatale, luring a man to his death. Her encounter with the good Dr. Brooks, though, shows her character on a night when she is still processing the death of her no-good husband, and so her strong emotions are understandable.
As a fiery social drama, No Way Out makes for a fiery film noir. It's not principally about the criminal element, but instead what the criminal element can do and wants to do to anyone who is endeavoring to make straight paths for their feet. [The Criterion Channel]