I first became aware of "No Way Out" because it shares the same title as a largely forgotten 1987 political thriller starring Kevin Costner, Sean Young and Gene Hackman that I am particularly fond of. Then I found out it was the first film appearance by Sidney Poitier, and also starred the great Richard Widmark in one of his inimitable villain roles. I knew I had to see it.
The movie was directed by Golden Age giant Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also co-wrote it along with Lesser Samuels, and the two men shared an Oscar nomination for their original screenplay. It's a taut potboiler that accomplishes its narrative goals while also being quite brazen in its tackling of racial animosity circa 1950.
The word "nigger" gets bandied almost as much as your average Quentin Tarantino feature, along with a host of other racial epithets like coon, darkie and so on. Poitier, whose screen presence was defined by intelligence and grace, shows prodigious quantities of both as Luther Brooks, a first-year intern at the large county hospital who is on the receiving end of nearly all that vileness. Just 22 when the film was shot, Poitier is boyishly handsome and painfully thin.
On his first night working the prison ward, a pair of brother bandits from Beaver Canal are brought in with serious but non-life-threatening gunshot wounds. The elder, Ray Biddle (Widmark), leers and taunts at Dr. Brooks -- outraged that a black man is putting his hands on his brother. When Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton) dies during a spinal tap because Brooks suspects he is suffering from a brain tumor, it turns into an all-out war of wills between the two men.
If Poitier is celebrated for his smarts, then perhaps no actor accessed anger as well as Widmark. In the right role -- like Tommy Udo in his screen debut in "Kiss of Death" just three years earlier -- hatred and resentment just emanated from Widmark like waves of a radiation from a nuclear meltdown.
Something about his rawboned face, the way his skull seemed to want to pop right out of his skin, set off by those enormous sapphire eyes, gave him a jackal's ravenous charm. Many of his characters, including Ray Biddle, drip with poisonous strain of humor that's funny only to them. He laughs at you, but the dead glint in his eye lets slip that he's kill you as soon as sneer at you.
Some predictable stuff happens -- Ray breaks out of the hospital prison ward, with the help of his "deef and dumb" other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), who can read lips and acts as a sort of spy for the family, visually eavesdropping on the conversations between the doctors and policemen who guard the prisoners.
Insisting that Brooks is responsible for Johnny's death, Ray whips up a race riot, rounding up his lug friends to stage an attack on the African-American part of town. The black men in the community get the drop on them, though, learning of the preparations and sending an even larger force to beat them to a pulp.
This results in perhaps the film's most singularly powerful moment, in which family members of the injured men crowd inside the hospital as their loved ones are brought inside. One woman can't stand to see Brooks treating her guy, and spits in his face. The stunned doctor simply walks away, fleeing out into the night.
Notable aside: screen icons Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee turn up in supporting roles as Dr. Brooks' brother and his wife. Though they did not get a screen credit, these are far meatier roles than the usual sort of background screen cameos you saw in this era. The husband leaves their shared home to go join the fight, talking about going for a walk. When his wife tries to stop him, his mother quietly admonishes the younger woman to let the man make his own choices.
I was expecting the Davis character to turn up dead or gravely injured -- that's how these kinds of movies normally go -- and was glad to see the film avoid the usual tropes.
The film wastes some time and energy on Johnny Biddle's ex-wife, Edie (the sloe-eyed Linda Darnell), who gets sucked into the story. Ray refuses the doctors' request to perform an autopsy on his brother, ostensibly because he doesn't want to see him cut open but really because he fears Dr. Brooks was correct in his diagnosis of a brain tumor. So the chief resident, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and Brooks track her down thinking she's the next of kin.
Edie has escaped Beaver Canal, just barely, living hand-to-mouth in a tiny apartment with a job she hates. She goes to see Ray at the hospital, and here it's suggested they had an affair behind Johnny's back while she was still married to him. Ray, who has a brute's sense of cunning, stokes Edie's nascent racial resentment and convinces her to help him.
Her heart gets turned around, however, by Dr. Wharton's warm-hearted maid, Gladys (Amanda Randolph), who nurses her back to health after a drunken bender. Things wind up with Edie helping Dr. Brooks against Ray -- whose shield of raging machismo comes crashing down when his shot-up leg starts pumping blood all over.
I respected the way the filmmakers give depth and breadth to even the smallest characters, such as Lefty Jones, a black orderly played by Dots Johnson. Lefty has an angry scar down the side of his face, compliments of the likes of Ray Biddle. He and the other orderlies view Dr. Brooks as something of a personal hero, and are angry when he shows restraint at all the racial taunts. Their alignment is underscored by the similarities in the white outfits worn by the orderlies and Brooks' doctor kit.
It's a pretty bold thing for a movie in 1950 to show the righteous anger of the black man -- Lefty and his fellows don't even appear to get arrested for their assault on the Beaver Canal gang. "No Way Out" is one of those good movies that gets better the more you think about it.