The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - NO WAY OUT (1950) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - NO WAY OUT (1950)

no way out 1950 review
A doctor battles to clear his name when a criminal accuses him of killing his brother.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Mildred Joanne Smith

no way out 1950 blu-ray

In the late 1940s, Hollywood began to explore the sort of social issues it had previously kept at arm's length. While many of the socially conscious melodramas of the time now come off as naive at best, ignorantly offensive at worst, it's the movies that used genre tropes to explore their wider themes that hold up best - the sci-fi thrillers, the westerns and the films noir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz's noirish study of prejudice, 1950's No Way Out, doesn't just hold up, it feels as daring and confrontational as any recent movie to take on the subject.

In his first credited role, Sidney Poitier is Luther Brooks, a rookie doctor who happens to be the first African-American to hold his position at the hospital where he practices. One night two brothers - Johnny (Dick Paxton) and Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) - are admitted with gunshot wounds after being shot by a cop during a foiled stick-up. Due to Johnny's severely addled state, Luther suspects he may have a brain tumour, and administers a spinal tap, during which Johnny passes away. The vehemently racist Ray accuses Luther of killing his brother. To prove his innocence, Luther requests an autopsy be performed on Johnny's corpse, but to do so requires the consent of a family member, and the angered Ray point blank refuses the request.

no way out 1950

Luther asks his mentor, Doctor Daniel Wharton (Stephen McNally), if he thinks he did the right thing, but the senior doctor can only tell him a tumour may have been only one of several possibilities. It seems Luther is in trouble until Johnny's police records reveal he was once married. Luther and Wharton track down his widow, Edie (Linda Darnell), pleading with her to talk to Ray and attempt to change his mind.

Though lumped in with the film noir movement thanks to its criminal milieu and shadowy urban setting, No Way Out is very much a social drama, one that isn't afraid to shine a spotlight on America's various prejudices. It deals with race in such a confrontational manner that it's difficult to imagine it being made today, let alone in 1950. From the start it asks us to side with its black lead, the only character in the film who seems to treat people at face value, dilligently working to save the life of a man who would likely take his given the chance. Midway through, Mankiewicz stages a violent race riot, and though both blacks and whites are portrayed as equally bloodthirsty, we're left in no doubt who we should be rooting for.

no way out 1950

Race is but one of the prejudices raised by No Way Out however. The liberal doctor Wharton, the good white man who claims to treat all his students the same, regardless of colour, has his own bigotry exposed when he and Luther pay a visit to the home of Edie, voicing his disdain for the white working class neighbourhood she grew up in. Equally, Edie views the well spoken doctor with contempt, aware of how he looks down his nose at her kind.

Watching No Way Out in 2018, it's neither its examination of race nor class that now makes the greatest impact, but rather its gender dynamic. In a scene that could be excised without disturbing the plot, Edie finds herself sharing breakfast with Wharton's black housekeeper, Gladys (Amanda Randolph). Where the rest of the movie takes place on nighttime streets and in shadowy rooms, this small but impactful scene is lit with the serene glow of morning, as two women take a breather from the troubles the men around them have brought on them. Edie reveals her alcoholic father beat her as a child, while Gladys confesses her brother was equally violent while under the influence of drink. "Why must men be like that?" they ask, perhaps rhetorically. What's striking is how casually the inquiry is made, as though they're asking why men insist on leaving the toilet seat up. In his film's quietest moment, Mankiewicz draws a line between prejudice and patriarchy. Elsewhere, when a tired Luther arrives home and falls asleep in his wife's arm, Mankiewicz allows black actress Mildred Joanne Smith to take centre stage, whispering her fears and aspirations in the oblivious ear of her sleeping husband as she cradles him Pieta-like.

no way out 1950

As the increasingly pessimistic narrative progresses, the meaning of No Way Out's title becomes all too clear, its players trapped in a cycle of hate, one which shows no sign of winding down 68 years later. There's no light at the end of the film's tunnel, but it does end in an ugly moment of satisfaction for Luther and Edie as the former's Hippocratic Oath kicks in when vengeance is on offer. The movie's final image - a black man and a white woman working together to save the life of a misogynistic racist as he bawls like a baby - is one for the ages.

Feature commentary by film noir historian Eddie MullerAll About Mankiewicz - a two part 1983 documentary on the director; Fox Movietone newsreels; original trailer; collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Glenn Kenny.

No Way Out is on dual format blu-ray/DVD June 11th from Eureka.