Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.
Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.
After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.
But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.
But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.
But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.
Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.
No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.
Richard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.
Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.
No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.
In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.