1950. Starring Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.
Let me be the one-millionth blogger to note that the past week was a transformative week for America. But I think the wisest thing said this week (and said by a wiseass as a wisecrack) was Stephen Colbert’s question to a guest on the Comedy Central election night special: “So, does this mean that racism is over?”
Clearly, when No Way Out was made, racism was not a thing of the past. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that so bluntly portrays racism, and explains it as a form of dementia. Roy Biddle (the great Richard Widmark) and his brother John are brought into the hospital’s prison ward after a failed robbery. Both are injured, but John is worse off — something that concerns his doctor, Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier), the hospital’s first black doctor. (“Negro” is the respectful term here, while just about every other less-respectful term is also used.)
Dr. Brooks is concerned enough about John Biddle’s condition that he performs a spinal tap, which has just begun when Biddle suddenly dies. The procedure is done in front of brother Roy, who immediately screams murder. Roy berates the new doctor, and refuses to allow the autopsy that would prove his innocence. Doctors Brooks and Wharton (Stephen McNally) appeal to the dead man’s widow, Edie (Linda Darnell), who is sick of being part of the “human garbage of Beaver Canal,” a Hell’s Kitchen-like section of the city filled with fighting neighbors and ready-to-rumble racists.
Word of the murder-by-scalpel has spread, and as a race riot begins, the doctors scramble to prove that other causes were responsible for the man’s death. Roy Biddle has other plans, and begins manipulating Edie and others in his plan to not only quash the autopsy but exact a revenge as well.
I’ll leave a few loose ends in describing this surprising, topical noir, but I’ll say that it’s unblinking in its portrayal of spitting, swearing racism. Poitier peforms his usual solid role, without much humor or passion — Dr. Wharton’s maid (Amanda Rudolph) shows much more personality in her brief appearance. To be fair, Poitier’s role is supposed to be the boring one, compared with Widmark, with his sneering grin and sweaty face, lashing out at his imagined enemies and howling with the pain from his injured leg. As the doctor who performs the autopsy suggests, “Maybe someday we’ll autopsy you and find out what’s wrong.”