Poitier takes to the screen: No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

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Sidney Poitier makes his film debut in No Way Out, and befittingly, it’s a daring drama about racial hatred. Poitier is Luther Brooks, a recently graduated doctor who has already faced prejudice and financial difficulties, but whose life takes a turn for the worse when he falls afoul of Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark). Ray and his brother Johnny are injured in a stickup, but Johnny dies while Brooks tries to treat him for an unrelated but more serious illness. Ray was already a rabid racist, but Johnny’s death gives him a vendetta against Brooks and the nearby African-American community. Meanwhile, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), Johnny’s ex-wife, can’t bring herself to help Brooks at the expense of her own reputation.

No Way Out is, obviously, a message film, and to its credit, it gives quite a bit of subtlety to the message. Ray is ferocious in his hatred for black people, hurling invectives left and right in a way that’s still shocking. However, even people who work with and know Brooks use a few of those words themselves. Doctor McNally tries to remain colour blind, supporting Brooks as he would any other competent doctor, but Brooks and the hospital head alike consider him naïve for not acknowledging the issues right under his nose. Brooks is always under inequitable scrutiny. Other black characters in the film are only too willing to respond to an oncoming race riot by starting one themselves. Few people in No Way Out, black or white, are able to escape the circumstances they’ve been born into, and how these have shaped them.

No Way Out is a little lacking on the entertainment side. The pace is slow from beginning to end, and sometimes the way the story fits together is too obvious. However, it does have thick tension and some strikingly shot moments, particularly the riot. Poitier is, predictably, a charismatic presence, Darnell makes Edie a tough but troubled character, and Widmark plays Ray without restraint. (I’ve read that he apologised to Poitier after each take.) All of this makes No Way Out a film to watch if you’re in the mood for one that’s about something, even if it’s not quite satisfying as a thriller.

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