No Way Out

No Way Out ★★★★

"When did you hear about it?"
"Like everybody else: when it was too late."

Last weekend I spent a day catching up with Denzel Washington, still somehow an underrated actor I believe and one of the best of his generation. This Black History Month it's important not just to watch documentaries and other non-fiction stories, but also films of seminal African-American actors breaking barriers in the industry. Today I'll repeat the process with one of the greatest performers of his or any other time.

Sidney Poitier redefined what a Black actor could do in Hollywood, and he did it for longer than many now remember. His first role was back in 1950, at just 22 years old, in legendary Tinseltown filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out. Far from just a bit part, though technically a supporting role he is the central focus of this tense and dramatic noir of crime, class, and race.

Poitier stars as young Dr. Luther Brooks, a hospital intern who has just passed his boards, the first African-American doctor at the urban facility; he chooses to stay for another year as a junior resident to earn more experience, knowing he will need it in a world which will doubt his expertise. One night, working in the prison ward, two brothers -- Johnny (Dick Paxton) and Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) -- are brought with gunshot wounds earned by police during a robbery. Johnny is hurt badly and seems to be failing, while Ray's biggest problem is being tended to by a Black doctor; he hurls violent insults and spits at Dr. Brooks upon meeting him. Dr. Brooks suspects an underlying malignant condition, as Johnny also has profound confusion and weakness, leading him to perform a spinal tap; as Ray witnesses, handcuffed to an adjacent bed, he screams "he's killing him!" Johnny in fact dies moments later. The chief medical resident Dr. Daniel Wharton (Stephen McNally) concurs with Dr. Brooks, but when Ray talks with Johnny's widow Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) about an autopsy, the hospital may have a explosive racial crisis on hand.

Maybe it's no surprise that no matter how many minutes he's on screen, Poitier was not going to earn top billing for a film. (Some consolation, perhaps, that his name is first listed on the second page of actors in the opening credits.) Reasonable for his first role, to be sure, but he's only "supporting" in name here; No Way Out is Sidney Poitier's movie through and through. Even during the moments when he's not featured, he is the story, as the hospital head and chief doctor know the legal and public relations battle they are about to face. It boils over to what seems to be a full-blown impending riot.

Much of that story doesn't sound very noir-ish, but trust me that it is. Perfect moments of tense drama and shocking reveals fit right into the genre, from a screenplay co-written by Mankiewicz and Lesser Samuels, for which they earned an Oscar nomination. (No shame in losing to Sunset Boulevard, though.) We move from the hospital to the grimy streets of a segregated city, where one strong similarity remains between the two races: destitute poverty. But Mankiewicz and Samuels do well to feature the Brooks family as well, living in a well-kept brownstone house as middle class as any urban dwelling. It only makes the crisis of Dr. Brooks' situation more urgent, knowing what the accusation of one racist man may do to his career and family. Maybe 1950's viewers couldn't see it explicitly, but the writers knew this sort of plot was a very real scenario of mid-century (read: past and present) America: sensitive envious whites doing everything they can to tear down the advances and successes of Black men.

I guess it's worth mentioning the screenplay is full of racial epithets from the white characters, using the n-word like a pronoun. Maybe it's a little heavy-handed, but surely purposeful to show the violent distrust the urban poor whites have of this Black doctor treating one of their own. Seventy years ago this was not an uncommon feeling; sad to say that I'm sure it's not exactly eradicated today. Regardless, as well-written as the script it, perhaps it lacks some subtlety.

The black-and-white camerawork of longtime Hollywood cinematographer Milton Krasner is stunning, even when more than half the movie is in a few hospital rooms. Shadows from the barred windows and doors are stark reminders of the prison ward, where both Ray and Dr. Brooks seem trapped.

Poitier is incredible, never once appearing like the 22-year-old he actually is. It's one of the best performances I've ever seen of him, for what it's worth even better than his historic Oscar-winning spot in Lilies of the Field. Amazed at his talent in this early role, but obviously it should be no shock as he's one of the greatest of his generation.

Added to Joseph L. Mankiewicz ranked.

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