No Way Out (1950)

NO WAY OUT was a way up for a 22-year-old Bahamian-American stage actor making his film debut. Given 4th-billing, Sidney Poitier made the most of his role as a young doctor in an intense drama centered around corrosive racism. He’s already at ease projecting the reassuring and resourceful dignity and humanism that would distinguish his career, hallmarks of the man as well his sincere, unfussy style as an actor. Good as he is, the standout performance in this bracing 1950 item, directed and co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, boils from first-billed Richard Widmark, embodying vicious bigotry in one of the nastiest parts he ever played. *

Yeah I’ve come up in the world. I used to live in a sewer and now I live in a swamp.”

Treating two brothers for gunshot wounds after their failed robbery, ‘Dr. Luther Brooks’ (Poitier) an urban county’s sole African-American physician, endures vile racist taunts from ‘Ray Biddle’ (Widmark), which turn from abusive to vengeful after his brother dies during a procedure. Biddle blames the death on Brooks, and refuses to grant an autopsy that would prove otherwise. Luther and supportive chief resident ‘Wharton’ (Stephen McNally) reach out to the dead man’s widow to okay an autopsy, but bitter and conflicted ‘Edie Johnson’ (Linda Darnell) wants nothing to do with any of them. Meanwhile, Ray’s fellow neighborhood thugs plan a race riot: the local black populace, including Luther’s brother, make ready to fight fire with fire.

The previous year’s military-based prejudice saga Home Of The Brave cracked open the Production Code’s ban on some offensive terms, mainly the n-word; the script here lets fly with all manner of bigot spew, tackling the hateful morons lingo head-on. The liberal Widmark was decidedly uncomfortable spouting the inflammatory slurs, profusely apologizing to his new young co-star, but he rips into the acting challenge with a will: unregenerate Ray Biddle is a bastard to reckon with, a poster punk for the electric chair.

The unfairly underrated Darnell is very good, plained-down from ‘desirable exotic beauty’ to ‘used, bruised & fed-up’. Reliable tough-guy McNally gets a neat pace-change as Poitier’s thoughtful mentor (he was up to his old meanie tricks in Winchester ’73) and the supporting cast is most capable. Alfred Newman’s score adds the right ominous touch, Milton R. Krasner’s black & white lensing suits the sober mood. Mankiewicz stages the riot sequence with suspense and clarity, not indulging in excess for the sake of sensationalizing already heated subject matter.

Too harsh (and potentially explosive) to gain much popular success, it did gross $3,900,000, nicking #83 for the year, and was Oscar-nominated for Best Story & Screenplay, Mankiewicz sharing the nod with Lesser Samuels (The Big Carnival). The winner in that category was Billy Wilder for a different sort of crime & craziness with Sunset Boulevard. Mankiewicz made do at the ceremony by taking another script Oscar (direction, too) for All About Eve, where his wounding dialog wasn’t street brutal, instead lacing venom in velvet.

With Mildred Joanne Smith, Bert Freed, Harry Bellaver, Stanley Ridges, Ossie Davis (debut), Ruby Dee, Amanda Randolph, Ray Teal, Will Wright, Frank Overton, Betsy Blair, Harry Lauter, Jack Kruschen. 106 minutes.

* Newcomer Poitier was credited below Widmark, Darnell and McNally: it would be eight more years before he was top-billed on Porgy And Bess. 1950 was a banner year for Widmark, 36, with winners Night And The City and Panic In The Streets. He and Poitier forged a lifelong friendship off this job, working together later on the adventure romp The Long Ships and a fine Cold War thriller The Bedford Incident.

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