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Friday Noir: No Way Out

Written by Lesser Samuels, Joseph L. Mankiewicz Directed by Joseph L. Mankievicz U.S.A., 1950

Written by Lesser Samuels, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Directed by Joseph L. Mankievicz
U.S.A., 1950

When a film is described as relevant, most would immediately agree that said quality is a positive one. The movie successfully reaches out to the audience, a community, perhaps even a generation through its images and story, striking a chord, prompting discussion, proving its value as an ‘important’ film. No Way Out, a Joseph L. Mankievicz directed potboiler drama about, among many things, the irredeemable racism that makes a young Black doctor’s job so much more difficult than it should be, must have been quite a show stopper in 1950, the year of its release. That was 67 years ago at the time of this review’s publication. It is with a heavy heart to admit that not only are many of the picture’s themes just as timely in 2017, but so too are, in fact, several of its individual scenes, most notably the more brazen and emotionally fueled ones.

The aforementioned doctor in question is Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) who, having recently passed his state exams, is working the night shift at a county hospital under the blessings of his mentor, Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally). In an early scene, two criminal brothers, both of whom were shot by a police officer whilst attempting a robbery, are rolled into the hospital’s prison ward. One is barely awake, acting like a man on his dying breath despite the minor injury. The other, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), while also suffering from a leg wound, is wide awake and taken aback at them being treated by a Black doctor. He lets loose verbally, berating Brooks in the worst way. Ray’s brother dies shortly thereafter while Dr. Brooks attempts to alleviate symptoms that strike the doctor as more ominous than anything from a leg gunshot wound. Ray doesn’t see it that way, claiming that Dr. Brooks killed his brother. While the hospital’s hierarchy have faith in Dr. Brooks, the young man becomes obsessed with proving Ray Biddle his innocence. The solution? An autopsy. Ray of course will have none of it, thus prompting Drs. Brooks and Wharton to seek approval from the deceased’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell). While not the bigot Ray is, she too has some discomforting reservations…

Taking in No Way Out over the weekend of Feb 11th and 12th was an unnerving experience. What’s more, this was a rewatch, the first viewing not being especially long ago, perhaps within the last year or two. Despite their proximity, the two sessions could not be more different. Brilliantly acted, expertly paced, written in taught fashion, sporting the thespian qualities of some Hollywood best and brightest at the time (Poitier and Widmark arguably the two names that most will probably recognize), the first watch was an engrossing, captivating session. It demonstrated that as far as back as the 1950s, Hollywood could produce something with a little bit of social backbone behind it when it wanted to. The second viewing over the past weekend was a decidedly more solemn, skin crawling affair. This can be a commendable quality in many respects, although it doesn’t quite ring so with No Way Out. Nay, the predominant reason why Mankievicz’s film was more difficult to digest this time was large part due to the prevalent toxicity in political discourse in the United States presently, and, albeit to a lesser degree, in Canada, the homeland of this column’s curator (a quick Google search with the words ‘Québec City Mosque shooting’ will enlighten those that may not be aware of what transpired recently north of the 49th parallel).

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Anyone living under the illusion that racism was not alive and well prior to an obvious, recent, and major political event in the U.S. was only fooling themselves. In light of Donald Trump emerging victorious at the polls in November 2016, even from the outside looking in, the sheer volume of news reports informing us of revolting behavior steeped in racism and bigotry has been revelatory, despite the ingrained knowledge that those vile qualities are still present to this day. Witnessing Richard Widmark (excellent in the role, truly) as Ray Biddle, demonizing Dr. Brooks for no other reasons than the most base and obvious, is not only appalling in the context of the film, but equally so because of the actions and words of a certain portion of the United States electorate in the aftermath of the most recent election. Furthermore, although the Canadian cultural climate is certainly much calmer, there have been recent incidents that unequivocally suggest things are not quite healthy in the friendly north either. As such, it is difficult to verbalize what No Way Out represents or should represent today. It’s more akin to a real life Twilight Zone experience because it doesn’t feel as if much has changed at all in the 67 years since.

Director Mankievicz, who contributed to the screenplay, and fellow scribe Lesser Samuels play their cards as effectively and fairly as possible. Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell is wonderful in the role), the woman whose blessings Brooks and Wharton are hoping to earn for the autopsy, is a terribly conflicted character. She comes from a filthy poor background, hates her native neighborhood but she is nevertheless a product of it, and with that comes some distrust towards non-White people. One could make the case that Edie is the most important piece of the puzzle. Ray is completely insane, a maniac. Brooks is a good fellow, vying to prove his own worth in the eyes of a world that still holds on to prejudice. Edie is the figure whose ideology shifts, the impressionable individual who might swing one way just as she might swing the other.

The filmmakers refuse to let just anybody off the hook. One such example is Brooks’ ward friend and colleague Lefty Jones (Dots Johnson). Whereas Brooks prefers to give people the benefit of the doubt and cling to optimism, Lefty is the pessimist. He assumes the next exams Brooks will have to write will be more difficult for him because of ‘you know what’. Word travels that there is controversy at the hospital involving a Black doctor. As a result, an exclusively White neighbourhood, the one Edie is from, plans to attack an exclusively Black neighborhood, the latter which devises its own battle scheme. Lefty, rather than take the higher ground, salivates at the prospect at tussling with White people and breaking some jaws. It’s warfare. It’s on.

No Way Out has a lot to juggle. It’s a drama, a thriller, a noir, a social statement, even an action movie in one particular sequence. Perhaps everything does not come together as smoothly as one would hope, which is often the case with films of such ambition. Juggling so many calling cards is immeasurably difficult. A few scenes could have been exempt from the final cut and the movie would have been better for it. That said, the climax, which features an escaped but very tired, very sickly Ray holding Brooks and Edie hostage at gunpoint at Dr. Wharton’s home is horrifying insofar as it encapsulates the plight of a racist, if ‘plight’ is a word that may be borrowed in such an instance. Ray’s mind is totally corrupted, he went off in the deep end a long time ago with nary a hope of ever finding his way back. And yet there is an aspect of victimization to his character. He cries out, tears in his eyes and quivering voice, that nobody cares about him and that he has been left out. Sound familiar?

There are no promises that watching No Way Out is a cathartic experience. If anything, given the recent social upheavals, it’s arguably a terribly depressing watch. However, when under the auspices of a fine director the likes of Joseph L. Mankievicz, and anchored by a collection of world class actors like Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, and Linda Darnell but to name a few, staring down a stark political climate in the face might be the first step towards communal redemption. In no shape or form is No Way Out a ‘fun’ movie, but it is, as alluded to in the opening paragraph, a relevant one. Where one can discern relevancy, one might also find a source of inspiration to rebalance the scale in favor of common decency, which is something most would be more than happy with at the moment.

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