Saturday 13 June 2009

No Way Out (1950)

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Stars: Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally and Sidney Poitier

I guess if you're going to start out in movies, a Joseph L Mankiewicz film is a pretty good place to start. Admittedly he wasn't quite the name at this point that he'd very quickly become (his next directorial effort, made the same year, was All About Eve) but he still wasn't nobody. He was a Mankiewicz after all, and he had a number of major films under his belt as a writer and producer, not least The Philadelphia Story. It's with his directing that he made a major mark though and this sort of story illustrates why.

One actor here was precisely nobody at this time. He's a minor little name in film called Sidney Poitier and this was his first real part, after an uncredited role as a night club extra three years earlier in Sepia Cinderella. Given the camera hardly leaves him and, well, he's Sidney Poitier, he certainly wouldn't be nobody for long. He's very young, literally as young as you'll ever see him on film. In fact he was 22 and lied about his age to Mankiewicz, telling him he was 27. He certainly made his mark as he meant to go on and the rest of the cast have to play pretty hard to keep up with him.

He's a doctor, a new one but an eager one, and he's assigned as an intern to the prison ward of a county hospital by a chief resident who trusts his judgement and really doesn't care what colour he is. Of course being Sidney Poitier, Luther Brooks is a black man and he's faced with a couple of patients who are rabid racists, what the film calls 'negro haters'. They're Ray Biddle and his brother Johnny, two thieves caught holding up a gas station, and shot in the process. It falls to Brooks to fix them up, which he does regardless of the taunts.

The catch is that Johnny has more wrong with him than just a bullet. He floundered around while attempting to evade arrest, even walking into a wall, and on his hospital bed he doesn't even notice a cigarette fall into the palm of his hand. Dr Brooks thinks that this may be due to a brain tumour and promptly operates, giving Johnny a spinal tap. And he dies right there on the bed, no doubt from the massive blood loss he'd already suffered. But rabid racist Ray blames the black doctor, of course, and refuses to grant the family approval needed to allow an autopsy, just to spite him.

This is a gift of a part for Poitier and he does precisely what you'd expect if you'd seen him in, well anything else. He's headstrong and capable, but very eager to be right. He knows that he did the right thing with Johnny Biddle, but the possibility that he was wrong plagues him, especially in the vehement opposition of a white man who hates him for no better reason than his colour. And that's where our real story lies: not in how sleazy Ray Biddle can get, in the way Biddle's ex-wife gets played by all sides or in how easy it is to escalate a racial conflict; it's in what goes on in the head of a black doctor in a white world who just has to be sure and ends up causing what he hopes to avoid.

Now this makes the whole film sound like Poitier is the star, but this was his first film and he only rates the second page of the title credits. The first page carries the stars: people who aren't the names that Poitier would quickly become but who nonetheless do a solid job. The top name on the list is Richard Widmark who plays Ray Biddle as a waste of space of a man from a slum called Beaver Canal who relishes the seediness of it. This is still early for Widmark, but he'd already made his name in films noir like Kiss of Death and Night and the City and he's a manipulative villain here, but he's just not bitter enough. He's too nice at being evil. Apparently he even apologised to his new friend Poitier after some of the takes.

Linda Darnell plays Johnny's ex-wife who becomes as much a pawn as Dr Brooks. The doctors want her to persuade Ray to allow the autopsy, playing up how she's fought her way out of Beaver Canal and made something of herself. As someone so obviously above such things, she should try to do the right thing. But Ray twists it all round and tries to persuade her to kickstart a race riot because she has Beaver Canal in her blood and, hey, the nigger doctor killed her ex-husband. Darnell plays it like a noir, like she's a femme fatale and she does a great job at that. She's not as good as a racist and she's no great drunk, which is surprising as she was an alcoholic for most of her short life, but she carries disgust and regret well.

The third star is Stephen McNally as the hospital's chief resident, Dr Wharton, who provides the real grounding to the story. He's a good guy but he's not interested in affirmative action, political correctness or positive discrimination. He simply wants to be around people who can do the job as it should be done and really doesn't want anything to do with all the idiotic prejudices that everyone else seems to harbour. And the film is pretty fair at that. There are as many prejudiced black men here as there are white men. However it's notable that Hollywood hypocrisy meant that such a fair film about race saw black actors in the race riot paid less than their white colleagues.

The supporting cast are pretty variable. Some are highly memorable, like Amanda Randolph as Dr Wharton's housekeeper and Harry Bellaver as another Biddle brother, this one highly intelligent but deaf and dumb. Others, like many of the good ol' boys in the race riot, have much less going for them. Mostly though it's the story that matters, a more subtle story about race than some of the more famous ones that Poitier soon racked up, for all its moments of violence and vitriol. It has impact, not overt impact like the kitchen sink dramas but not restrained polite impact the way of something like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? It holds its own ground and it holds it well. I wonder why I'd never heard of it.

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