Dr Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is newly graduated from medical school and starting his first shift this evening at the city hospital, nervous but looking forward to making a difference. He meets with another doctor with more years in the job, Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally), and he reassures him Brooks will be just fine, however when he receives the call that he must attend to a shooting case just brought in, he doesn't realise this will be all-too-important for all the wrong reasons. For Brooks is an African-American, and his new patients are two white criminals who are horrified that he should be treating them, because they are dyed in the wool racists determined to be difficult...
Racism was approached gingerly by Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century, and no wonder when Birth of a Nation back in the early days had inspired a resurgence of anti-black prejudice across the United States, not to mention the fact that films with people of colour prominently featured in them were often banned across the South thanks to their racism being sadly alive and well. But every so often a more serious-minded filmmaker would tackle the problems of prejudice - Gentlemen's Agreement, Crossfire - and Hollywood patted itself on the back for at least acknowledging there were issues to be debated, even as they continued to cast blacks as servants.
No Way Out was different. It didn't mince its words. The script by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, working with Lesser Samuels' original story, made no bones about presenting racism not as something impolite, like burping at the dinner table, but an actual mental sickness ravaging society as the most bigoted character was in an unsubtle item of metaphor genuinely a sick man, played by Richard Widmark as a venomous patient whose leg wound sums up all that was festering in his mind, lurching around the sets like some diabolical Long John Silver of racism and unafraid to toss the n-bomb around because he thinks it makes him a bigger man - he needs someone to look down on.
Despite the way Widmark's Ray Biddle finds fans in the white community when he accuses Luther of murdering his brother when he was so offensive to him as they lay in their hospital beds, we are in no doubt Brooks was in the right, and not simply because Poitier played him, for this was his feature debut and he didn't have the baggage of his characters rising above racial issues as he does now. But it was assuredly this role which informed his career, as it would take over a decade for him to play a role in a film where his race was never mentioned (that was The Bedford Incident, also with his friend Widmark). Here, as Biddle incites a race riot that both sides engage in with dispiriting enthusiasm, the impression is that there is no hope to solve the divisions when there is so much anger and ignorance readily lapsed into, the blunt language still unsettling today.
But that would be to fail to consider the part Linda Darnell played. She had made her name having to do little more than look beautiful, and audiences were content with that, but she, as with many a performer known for their looks, wished to exhibit more depth, and she certainly did that here. She was Biddle's hardbitten sister-in-law Edie, who is initially swayed by his poison, but when the violence breaks out she feels terrible and this drives her on to make amends. She was deliberately dowdy in appearance so we would not be distracted, a simple trick that she pulled off thanks to the anguish we can sense Edie is feeling: there were a couple of lovely scenes between her and Wharton's housekeeper Gladys (Amanda Randolph, uncredited, alas) where her fear of this black woman gives way to respect and a mutual understanding the ultimately pathetic Biddle could never perceive. The line Poitier gets about not wishing to murder him in revenge since he has no desire to kill a man who hates him summed up the point: tackle the racists, but don't sink to their level, tricky, but well argued. Music by Alfred Newman.
[The Eureka Blu-ray has the following features:
- 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD
- LPCM mono soundtrack (Uncompressed on the Blu-ray)
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio Commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller
- Archival Fox Movietone Newsreels
All About Mankiewicz (103 mins) a two part documentary on the legendary director, originally broadcast on French television in 1983
- Original theatrical trailer
- A collector's booklet featuring a new essay by Glenn Kenny
- Reversible Sleeve.]