Tag Archives: No Way Out

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 portrayal of racism

Although it is film written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz between “A Letter to Three Women” and “All About Eve,” (for which Mankiewicz won Oscars for his direction and for his screenplays in both 1950 and 1951), “No Way Out” is best known as the site of Sidney Poitier’s screen debut. Poitier plays the part of a young doctor in a public hospital accused by Ray Biddle, a psychotic “white trash” racist (played with all the stops out by Richard Widmark) of killing his brother after the two of them had been shot during a failed robbery. Playing Dr. Brooks’s brother John, a mail carrier who jokes that his brother may be able to deliver babies but is not qualified to deliver mail (because he does not know what the capital of South Dakota is), Ossie Davis also made his screen debut in “No Way Out,” as did his real-life and often-time screen wife, Ruby Dee.

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Poitier was billed fourth, Davis and Dee not at all, but the film was obviously important in showing an African American professional and a range of sympathetic African Americans onscreen. “No Way Out” is also a gripping melodrama with a race riot (actually a pre-emptive strike from “N_____rtown” against the white slum from which the Biddles came). Mankiewicz has a reputation for being a great writer of dialogue with little interest in the visual aspects of cinema: “all talk, and no action.” To me, “The Quiet American” is decisive disproof of this indictment, though I wonder how anyone who has watched Bette Davis descend the stairs at the party in “All About Eve” could have thought such a thing (even with all the great lines Davis and George Sanders have in that delirious backstage epic).

Although he had just played a heroic doctor (with Jack Palance playing the villain) in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets,” Richard Widmark turned in a frightening performance as the fomentor of a race riot and rabid racist. His own 1947 debut in “Kiss of Death” established him as the primo psycho of the post-World War II decade. Widmark had a frightening smirk and a truly blood-curdling giggle.

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Instead of getting to chew up the scenery and act out every impulse, Poitier’s character is trying to prove himself and to be “a credit to his race.” He tries to dissuade a black orderly (played by Dots Johnson, who played the drunken M.P. in Rossellini’s “Paisà”) from taking off to join the rumble, telling him that, if he does, he’s “no better than they are.” The orderly replies that it is too much to expect black folks to be better than white folks, since trying to prove they are as good as white folks gets them attacked, maimed, and killed.

Dr. Brooks’s boss, Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally) also counsels pragmatism, but Dr. Brooks is determined to prove himself. He undertakes a dangerous course to get the autopsy that Ray Biddle refuses, even after his former sister-in-law Edie (played by Linda Darnell, who had been Lora Mae, another woman who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and bettered herself in Mankiewicz’s previous film) tries to convince him to authorize it and thereby test the claim that the “n____r” doctor killed his brother.

There is little preaching in Mankiewicz’s screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Mankiewicz’s script for “All About Eve”). It also has a refreshingly direct confrontation of tokenism and double standards. The film’s ending is predictable, and Edie’s oscillations are as unconvincing as is her couture (for a divorced drive-in car hop), but the film is more than a historical curiosity. It is a gripping, noirish melodrama without outstanding performances. . . and striking black-and-white cinematography by Milton Krasner (Bus Stop, A Double Life, Boy on a Dolphin, and Oscared for Three Coins in a Fountain).

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who, like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, really was the author of the films he directed (and in many instances produced) deserves greater recognition in the pantheon of film-makers. During the 1950s Mankiewicz stretched Marlon Brando into Mark Antony and Sky Masterson (in, respectively, “Julius Caesar” and “Guys and Dolls”), and I particularly like his adaptations of “The Late George Apley” and “Sleuth,” Some of his own witty screenplays include “People Will Talk” (the film he chose when the San Francisco Film Festival honored him with its lifetime achievement award), “The Honey Pot,” “The Quiet American,” and “Five Fingers.” The latter two are the most visually striking of his films and among the best espionage films ever made.

 

copyright 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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