I had a preconceived notion that No Way Out might be the kind of social drama that was groundbreaking for its day and by today’s standards looks mundane and quaint. 65 years have passed and this film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz still packs a wallop, believe it or not. We are blessed with the first major role for screen icon Sidney Poitier as young doctor Luther Brooks. His main antagonist is Richard Widmark playing a racist scumbag like he does best, and Linda Darnell also gives a key performance, although her career would soon be on the decline.
The film opens with the young interning doctor — Poitier was only 22 at the time –getting ready for a night shift. His first customers just happen to be Johnny and Ray Biddle, who both got it in the leg after a botched robbery attempt. At first glance, their wounds look superficial, but Luther notices Johnny is disoriented. His diagnosis is a brain tumor so he tries to administer a spinal tap which ends up unsuccessful, partially due to Ray’s constant berating. But Ray has no sympathy; all he knows is that this black doctor has killed his brother. A white doctor could have saved him and all his prejudiced beliefs of blacks are confirmed. At least that’s what he tells himself in his narrow little mind. Luther even goes to his superior Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and although he cannot be absolutely certain, he maintains confidence in Luther’s competence.
Again that bears little importance to Ray and he will not grant them the opportunity to do an autopsy. After all, his mind is already made up. So the next best thing is to track down Johnny’s former wife Edie (Darnell), who has pulled herself out of the gutter which is Beaver Canal and made a modest living for herself. They want her help, and unbeknownst to them, she does go see Ray. You can see it in how they interact with each other. She was Johnny’s wife once, but there was something between them and Ray won’t let her forget it. That’s undoubtedly why she wanted to get away, but Ray brings out the worst in her. Even as they speak, her racist sentiments come bubbling to the surface. It’s in her veins after all. It doesn’t help that unrest is building in the city. A riot is at hand and the slow build up leading to the imminent rumble is boiling with tension. Mankiewicz does something important here. He shows both perspectives. I cannot help but think some things have not changed a whole lot over the years. Black vs. white. The same racism. The same belligerence. The same lack of understanding.
Of course, after that is all done, that still does not wrap things up with Ray. He still has to settle a score with Luther and he uses Edie against her will. They set a trap at the home of Dr. Wharton for the unsuspecting Luther, and this scene has vital importance to the film, not simply because Biddle and Brooks come face to face once more. This is the scene where Edie must make a choice. Really it’s the universal choice. Stand passively by as injustice is being done or take a stand against it.
So you can make your own diagnosis, but this was not a superficial message movie. It hits fairly hard. I was even surprised by how often Ray Biddle lets the N-word fly. It completely fit Widmark’s characterization, but the production codes allowed it. Supposedly the actor apologized profusely after many of his scenes with Poitier, but his performance is nevertheless potent. It’s certainly convicting and we cannot be too quick to find fault with any of these characters because, truth be told, we all have some apathy and narrow-mindedness stuck inside our skulls. No Way Out is a striking reminder of that.