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Review: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out on Fox DVD

The film is still an important footnote in the history of Hollywood’s portrayals of racism.


No Way Out

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out was the Hollywood golden boy’s buffer project between his two Oscar-snagging instant masterpieces A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. In retrospect, it’s nice to think that Mank worked himself through the post-Academy Award pressure to prove himself a serious direc-tah by tackling a serious drah-mah. It’s a relief to reckon that he got away with the full slate of racial slurs—from the n-word to “coon,” this one’s got them all covered—leaving his vocabulary to roam free range for All About Eve. But it’s also ironic to consider that he reserved most of his fire and music for the backstabbing actresses of All About Eve and not the movie that has a bona fide race riot as a centerpiece. No Way Out borrows the template for socially conscious filmmaking from both Gentlemen’s Agreement and Crossfire: it’s half noir, half sermon. Sidney Poitier makes his debut screen performance as Dr. Luther Brooks, a black (and green) medical intern at a county hospital that sits one neighborhood over from the city’s run-down, racist shantytown. When said neighborhood’s two Biddle brothers, Ray and Johnny, are wheeled into the prison ward after a botched robbery attempt, Johnny dies as his superficially wounded brother Ray (Richard Widmark, stalwart pre-Method magician as per usual) looks on. Though Brooks claims that his death was seemingly caused by a brain tumor, he needs an autopsy to confirm his suspicions, and unapologetic racist Ray intends to use his status as next of kin to block anything that might exonerate the black man he swears committed murder. The only recourse for Brooks and the hospital’s chief medical resident Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally, playing the requisite non-racist white dogoodnick with all the bland inoffensiveness required to not alienate latent racists) is to get Johnny’s ex-wife (Linda Darnell) to persuade Ray of their case. She unwittingly unleashes more violence and miscommunication, which is where the noir element comes into play: women of ill-repute, no matter how well-intentioned, are typically the doorway to chaos and corruption. Mankiewicz’s setup is a solid, writerly premise, but one that forces him, as a director, to meticulously construct three major theaters of exposition (and a few minor ones as well). This patience pays off spectacularly in his theatrical All About Eve, but frustrates in a noir context when tightness is of the essence.


Fox’s film noir line has rarely disappointed in the transfer department. Pixel-for-penny, they’re quite simply the best deal on the DVD shelf. However, No Way Out is at least a step below the benchmark set by discs like Panic in the Streets, Nightmare Alley, and House of Bamboo. That is to say, it’s less than perfect. But that’s not entirely on Fox’s head. Mankiewicz was many things, but a master of cinematography he wasn’t, at least not consistently. (Editing was more his forte.cinematic copyediting, if you will.) Like with All About Eve, there’s an occasionally awkward shot here and there without any real sense of depth perception or kinetic movement or blocking, as though Mank was so busy translating his dialogue into his actors’ mouths that he couldn’t take time out to orchestrate a “scene.” So what you get on No Way Out’s DVD are occasional scenes of hazy focus and oatmealy gray balance. But it’s still a nice print, and the two sound options (stereo and mono) work with Alfred Newman’s typically flamboyant score with acceptable results.


Another dependable fixture on the Fox film noir line is a solid commentary track from a film expert, and this time it’s Eddie Muller. Occasionally he lapses into generic fawning fanboy territory, as when he spends most of Amanda Randolph’s scene enthusing at her professionalism and presence and how she manages to turn one of the worst written scenes in the film into maybe the film’s most surprisingly effective sequences. But he’s also refreshingly subjective about the film’s failings, practically acknowledging that it’s not exactly the most essential title in the film noir line. He’s almost reduced to laughing about the inciting incident that leads into the film’s third act: Richard Widmark’s escape from the prison ward. Aside from the commentary, there’s also a generous still gallery, a selection of film trailers (including a few other film noir titles), and a pair of Movietone News reels.


While not an essential addition to Fox’s sterling line of film noir titles, No Way Out is still an important footnote in the history of Hollywood’s portrayals of racism. Unlike Crash.

Cast: Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Sidney Poitier, Mildred Joanne Smith, Harry Bellaver, Stanley Ridges, Dots Johnson, Amanda Randolph, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Lesser Samuels Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: March 7, 2006 Buy: Video

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