Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is pleased to announce that Sean Young's eyebrows do not appear in this film.
Is it a question…or an answer?
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) mixes a concoction of melodrama, noir, and a lesson on racial equality. In the process, he introduces the world to a young actor named Sidney Poitier.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night—in his feature debut) is the intern on duty at County Hospital when outlaw brothers Ray and George Biddle are brought in with superficial gunshot wounds suffered during a shootout with the cops. When George dies, Ray (Richard Widmark, Pickup on South Street) places the blame on the doctor's race. Brooks is convinced George was suffering from an undiagnosed brain tumor, but an autopsy can't be performed without the approval of the racist Biddle clan.
Though County's chief resident, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally, Criss Cross), is supportive of Brooks, Biddle's death has riled the denizens of the city's white slums. Brooks and Wharton seek authorization to perform the autopsy from George Biddle's troubled ex-wife (Linda Darnell, Unfaithfully Yours). But will they be in time to prevent the looming race riot that could tear the city apart?
Over 50 years after its release, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's mostly excellent noir exploration of racism is by turns prescient and quaint, progressive and dated. Among its weaknesses is a script that is, at times, overwritten. As a genre, noir tends to be verbose, but for modern ears No Way Out goes overboard with its soap boxing. Dr. Wharton, in particular, is little more than a Jiminy Cricket figure, spewing lengthy soliloquies meant to explain the picture's moral stance on racial relations, and cajole us into agreement. The film's preachy tone is forgivable when its daring progressiveness is considered in historical context (the production predates by four years the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that kicked off the Civil Rights Movement). But as a timeless entertainment, the incessant speechifying highlights the fundamental problem that pedantic filmmaking (however much-needed the lesson) makes for sluggish drama.
Perhaps more problematic than the overcooked dialogue is the picture's stage-bound look. County Hospital looks very much like a sparsely dressed set. Matters only worsen when the story moves outside to the ghetto race riot near the end of the film. Any sense of action or danger is muted by the ghetto's obvious Hollywood soundstage look. The limitations of sterile, onset shooting are only heightened by Mankiewicz's rather spare visual style. Little of noir's hallmark chiaroscuro is on display here. Particularly dated is Mankiewicz's tendency to punctuate important speeches by dollying in toward the actor. Rather than add weight to the dialogue, it evokes any of the many playhouse television dramas of the 1950s and early '60s, or a vintage episode of General Hospital.
No Way Out's sizzling performances go a long way in making up for the weaknesses I've just catalogued. Twenty-two year old Sidney Poitier has all the characteristics and screen presence that would make him a star. His performance is smooth, dignified, and intense. When Brooks finally snaps under the pressure of Biddle's racism and the increasing possibility of racial violence inspired by his medical decision-making, his loss of faith in humanity is an entirely believable bit of tragic character evolution. Linda Darnell brings a realistic inner conflict to George Biddle's ex-wife, Edie. Her waffling between trying to help Brooks and Wharton, and feeling a nostalgic loyalty to Ray, is handled delicately enough to inspire sympathy rather than distaste. Future stars Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have small but memorable roles as Brooks's brother and sister-in-law.
Above all, though, it is Richard Widmark's performance that dominates and defines the picture. Ray Biddle is absolutely repellant, a seething, hateful racist who is somehow more ignorant and pathetic than villainous. We don't like him, but are never able to reduce him to a comfortably one-dimensional, mustache-twirling bad guy. The performance is so excellent (crossing lines that modern movies about race wouldn't dare) that it goes far in rehabilitating some of Mankiewicz's clunkier soliloquies. Dr. Wharton's didactic musings about race seem almost necessary in the face of Biddle's vile hatred and race baiting—almost. As a matter of fact, Biddle and Brooks are perfect foils for one another: the former craven, weak, and self-serving; the latter dignified, intelligent, and acutely aware of how his position makes him a representative of and role model for his entire race. This symmetry in both Mankiewicz's script and the performances of Widmark and Poitier lifts No Way Out from the mire of its time-bound weaknesses, making it a noir classic worthy of any genre fan's collection.
With the exception of some isolated shots in which black levels are overblown, Fox's transfer of No Way Out from celluloid to ones and zeros is just about perfect. If the original elements used for the transfer weren't pristine, then the folks at Fox have performed a stellar restoration job because dirt and damage is negligible. Detail in some shots could be slightly sharper, but on the plus side, there's nothing in the way of artifacts from edge enhancement. Contrast is subtle and beautiful. The presentation is full frame, which is in keeping with the original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio.
A single-channel presentation of the original mono audio track is housed on the disc, as well as a remixed two-channel stereo presentation. There's no substantial difference between the two. Both are clean and free of hiss and other unwanted aural distractions.
Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Topping the supplements is a fact-filled commentary by noir expert Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. A couple brief Movietone News reels, a gallery of production stills, and a theatrical trailer are also included. All in all, it's a solid collection of extras for a single-disc release of a catalogue title.
No Way Out is perhaps too much a product of its time to be seen as a fully-realized work of art by 21st-century audiences. Still, it has to be admired for its extremely ahead-of-its-time take on racial relations, as well as stellar performances by Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark. Add to that Fox's respectful treatment of the movie in the digital realm and the DVD becomes a must-own for noir aficionados.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Noir Historian Eddie Muller
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