Cult Movie: Sidney Poitier race drama No Way Out is a minor masterpiece

Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark in No Way Out
Ralph McLean

WHEN postwar cinema addressed the lurking evil of racial tension on the streets of America in a head-on and unflinching manner it tended to be with films fronted by Sidney Poitier.

As one of the leading African American actors of his generation, his cool and dignified presence elevated everything from The Defiant Ones (1958) to A Raisin In The Sun (1961) and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967).

Released in 1950, No Way Out was one of his first films in this significant run and it contains a typically committed and intense performance from Poitier in a production that was considered highly controversial at the time. Watching it afresh thanks to its recently unveiled first ever Blu-ray release, from Eureka Entertainment, it’s easy to see why.

Directed by multi-Oscar-winning director Joseph L Mankiewicz, it’s a sharply observed and dynamically shot slice of social melodrama that never flinches in its portrayal of casual racism and hatred.

Poitier is Dr Luther Brooks, an intern doctor who is charged with treating two desperate criminals who arrive at his surgery fresh from an aborted gas-station robbery and with only a couple of bullet holes to show for their trouble.

Ray Biddle (played by noir legend Richard Widmark) is a rabid racist who refuses point blank to be treated by a black man and when his brother dies under Luther’s care he becomes obsessed with getting his vengence on the young medic.

Being the professional he is, the doctor continues to do his job but Biddle’s unhinged anger and blind hatred swiftly stir up latent racial tensions within the local community and events soon spiral dangerously out of control.

In order to clear his name Brooks needs to undertake an autopsy on the dead man but that requires permission from Biddle, something that he’ll not get without one almighty fight.

Watching No Way Out today with its roaring sense of race hatred is a tough call. The language, which includes the N word and characters practically spitting the term 'black' out like they can’t stand the taste of it in their mouth, is strong stuff today so it must have hit home like a freight train in 1950.

Both Poitier and Widmark are excellent in their respective roles and there are fine supporting performances from the likes of Linda Darnell as Biddle’s conflicted girlfriend Edie and Stanley Ridges as Dr Sam Moreland, a friend for Brooks amid all the madness.

Released as the civil rights movement in America was in its infancy, it received critical acclaim at the time but fell foul of the censor’s blade due to its uncompromising approach to its subject matter.

Mankiewicz made better films, including the timeless All About Eve in the very same year, but this is one of his most important and uncompromising efforts. Bristling with anger and bursting with so much hatred it sometimes feels like it might explode from the screen, No Way Out Is a minor masterpiece and as significant a piece of social drama as Sidney Poitier ever graced.

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