Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, No Way Out is a film noir about racism in urban America. Sidney Poitier gives his debut feature performance as Dr. Luther Brooks, a newly qualified young doctor. Two brothers have been shot by the cops while attempting a robbery, and these hoodlums—Ray (Richard Widmark) and Johnny (Dick Paxton)—are caught and taken to the hospital for treatment. Both are racists, and Ray makes this clear by verbally abusing Dr. Brooks.
When Johnny dies, tensions build up as Ray tries everything in his power, including attempting to start a race riot, to get back at the doctor. He blames Brooks for Johnny’s death, because he assumes a Black doctor would be substandard. For his part, Brooks is trying to make sure the dead brother gets an autopsy so he can clear his name. When the hospital refuses, he comes up with an ingenious plan to force the issue.
Widmark had his start as a villain in Kiss of Death, and his famous evil grin took its inspiration from The Joker. At the end of the ‘40s he began playing more anti-hero and even straight heroic roles, so No Way Out was a return to form. Although Widmark is one of the great noir bad guys, by all accounts in real life he was a nice guy. This left him deeply uncomfortable playing a virulent racist. He and Poitier were close friends until Widmark’s death, appearing in other films together, including The Bedford Incident and The Long Ships. He felt so bad about the lines he was given during this production that he apologised to Poitier between takes.
People often forget that Poitier’s early career featured grittier roles than the parts he was later known for—In the Heat of the Night is usually remembered, but not some of his noir roles or his parts in films like Edge of The City or The Defiant Ones. His ability is obvious here. Linda Darnell plays Johnny’s widow, Edie, who is used by the surviving brother to lure Dr Brooks into a trap set by Ray. Darnell worked with Mankiewicz quite a few times. The film also features Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in key but small uncredited roles.
One of Mankiewicz’s best films, No Way Out is a solid noir with melodramatic elements. There was also some drama during the production, when Black extras in the race riot scene near the end found out they were being paid less than their white counterparts, and launched a successful on-set protest for equal pay.
The feature was well shot by Milton Krasner, whose career went all the way back to the early 30s. Krasner shot many of the sequels to the Universal monster films, and loads of noirs. He worked with Nicholas Ray, Vincent Minnelli and other greats to create an admirable body of work.
This Masters of Cinema dual-format release from Eureka includes an audio commentary by the Czar of Noir himself Eddie Muller, and a full-length two-part documentary on Mankiewicz, as well as archival newsreels, the trailer and a booklet with an essay on the film by Glenn Kenny.