Chances are, if you talk about No Way Out, people will think that you’re referring to the 1987 Kevin Costner film. It’s even the first thing to come up if you search for the title online. It’s a good film, but it is easily overshadowed by the lesser known No Way Out from 1950 that launched the career of the legendary Sidney Poitier.
Poitier plays Dr Luther Brooks, an intern that has just passed his state board exam and received his license to practise medicine. It’s his first night back at the hospital after his exam and the newly qualified doctor is assigned to the hospital’s prison ward. When brothers Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton) and Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) are brought in after their failed robbery attempt, Luther is put to the test as he tries to help the sickly Johnny whilst receiving racist abuse from Ray.
Despite trying his best to help Johnny, the man dies whilst receiving treatment from Luther, which leads Ray to blame the man for his brother’s death. With the hospital and Ray Biddle refusing to allow an autopsy on Johnny to prove that Luther did the right thing, tensions mount as Ray stirs up anger and racial prejudice with his gang, getting them to blame Luther and wanting revenge against any black person they can find. Unfortunately, things reach a head when a full blown race riot breaks out.
Sidney Poitier is on excellent form throughout and it’s extraordinary to consider that this was his first major role at just 22 years of age. He has a presence in all of his scenes that speaks of an actor not only comfortable in his craft, but with confidence. Even when he’s in scenes where he’s doubting if he did the right thing and is questioning himself, he comes across as an incredibly strong man; but then as a black actor in the 1950s, Poitier would have needed to be, much in the same way that his character of Luther would have been in trying to enter the medical world.
The standout performance has to be Richard Widmark, who played the racist Ray Biddle. From what I’ve learnt about him Widmark was a good friend of Poitier’s and found it incredibly difficult to say a lot of the racist lines he was given, regularly apologising to Poitier after their takes. You can’t tell this from his performance though. He makes you believe that he’s a thoroughly un-likeable and evil man.
The rest of the cast are good in their roles too, with even the smaller characters brilliantly cast. Linda Darnell is great as Edie Johnson, Johnny’s ex-wife, who is initially manipulated into Ray’s way of thinking before seeing the evils of those racist views and learning to accept that black people are regular, decent human beings. Stephen McNally also shines as Doctor Wharton, Luther’s colleague at the hospital. Despite in one scene claiming not to be pro-black, he never once treats Luther with anything less than his utmost respect, supporting him and backing his decisions, whilst also pushing for others to accept that Luther is a good doctor and decent man.
I’ve seen some claims that No Way Out is a bit heavy handed in its portrayal of racism and that it makes things very black and white (pardon the pun) in regard to right and wrong. Whilst the film might not be the most nuanced depiction of institutionalised racism in America, it’s important to remember that the film was produced in the 1950s; a time where these kinds of issues weren’t talked about, especially in mainstream film, and this is one of the few examples of progressive liberals getting their views out into the public.
The Blu-ray itself looks fantastic and the film looks great. There’s a small amount of grain in the picture, but it appears that a lot of work has been put into restoring as much of the quality as possible. I’ve got more modern films that look a whole lot worse than this does as examples of how not to do Blu-ray. The release also comes with a lot of extra content for your money, with a commentary track, and a two-part documentary about director Joseph L. Mankiewicz that totals close to two whole hours.
No Way Out is not an easy film to watch, but not because it isn’t well made or well acted, it’s hard to watch because it shines a spotlight on the racism in America in the 1950’s. This is a time when segregation still took place, where black people were refused entry to businesses or schools, where white people threw the n-word around all the time, and when black people were still brutally lynched and murdered. Whilst the film doesn’t go to the degree of showing events such as lynching, it doesn’t shy away from how insidious and pervasive racism was during the time, but what makes it so uncomfortable is how relevant it still is to modern day.
The targets may have changed to include people of other ethnicities, but there are still stories and videos uploaded to the internet every day of white people refusing service from people of colour, refusing to be treated by non-white doctors, and calling the police on black people simply going about their everyday lives.
No Way Out may be over 60 years old, but it’s still relate-able to the world we live in; and that’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Eureka Entertainment released No Way Out on dual format DVD and Blu-ray as part of its Masters of Cinema Series on 11 June. Check out the trailer below and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.