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No Way Out

* * * * -

Thriller with incendiary anti-racist message

Image of No Way Out

Joseph L Mankiewicz / US / 1950 / 106mins

Available on dual-format Blu-ray/ DVD Mon 11 Jun 2018

The Biddle brothers are “two-for-a-nickel tough guys” from Beaver Canal, on the wrong side of town. They’ve been shot by the police in a bungled hold-up. In the hospital they’re to be treated by a black doctor (the very young Sidney Poitier’s debut).  But this is 1949 and weedy and whining Johnny Biddle (the ferrety Richard Widmark) is a racist of the most rancid variety.

It is 70 years since the movie was made and its horrible racist slurs jangle.  America may have had a black president but it’s also had continuing police killings of African-American men.  The swift reaction to Roseanne Barr’s recent Ambien-laced bigoted tweets shows how far anti-racism has come. The film remains fresh and uncomfortable in equal measure although its noirish clichés look dull whenever Poitier, an actor with a natural stillness and grace, is on the screen. His job is to fix up the villains so they can stand trial and do time but one of the brothers dies and Johnny – Widmark is on top form here spitting and cussing – blames the black doctor (the N-word is used liberally throughout) for killing his brother.  The Biddle boys’ shared a girlfriend (Linda Darnell), and she is caught in the middle.

Mankiewicz made this incendiary quickie with his trademark flourish.  Widmark, whose star was on the rise, had to be dragooned into doing it.  In a time before American Civil Rights it must have been shocking to many audiences with a “Negro” in the role of hero.  It’s fairly provocative even now.  Widmark’s venomous racial epithets retain a sting as Poitier refuses to rise to the bait.  The movie is well-paced and its lack of preachiness is only to its advantage.  It’s in total contrast to Mankiewicz’s follow-up All About Eve – an ensemble piece that took Broadway backstage bitching to a new level.

The ending of No Way Out is a little sudden but its message – about the implacable race hatred that still bedevils America – is as relevant today as ever.