Sunday, April 6, 2008

A not entirely successful mix of film noir and agitprop, No Way Out is nevertheless one of the most interesting and least commented on films by All About Eve director-screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In his film debut, Sidney Poitier showed how the plaster saint he would become in the 1960's began the canonization process, playing a doctor from a bourgeois black family (with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis!) who had the misfortune of seeing the brother of vicious thug Richard Widmark die in his care. Widmark vows revenge.

It's churlish and probably tacky to criticize Mankiewicz for creating exactly what he envisioned, especially since what we see onscreen in 2007 still startles -- the casual manner, for example, in which Poitier lays a hand on Linda Darnell's shoulder; think of the famous case a few years later in which a Southern black boy was almost beaten to death (his eyeball dangled from its socket, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro) because he was seen talking to a white girl. Milton R. Krasner's unfussy black and white framing only sharpens the social and racial divide between the two characters (and actors). Even in 1950 Poitier's eyes registered the faint boredom with the role, balked at the limitations imposed on him, and Mankiewicz, perhaps aware that he's gone as far as he could with this daring subject matter, obliges by imposing those limitations. The best scenes show the Mankiewicz who just won directing and screenwriting Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives: a relaxed, beautiful, brief exchange between Darnell and the fiery Amanda Randolph (playing a housekeeper); and a sustained scene between Poitier's most committed advocate at the hospital and the hospital administrator that gives both actors the kind of juicy dialogue often confused for "literate" and "elegant" yet imposes subtlety on a film committed to a strenuous abandonment of it (at its worst, Mankiewicz's work suggests the Christopher Walken character in the Fatboy Slim video -- the besuited shill, so delighted with being naughty for once that he can't stop his pirouettes).

But by all means rent the film or catch it on TCM, where it will probably play (if it hasn't already) as part of its Richard Widmark appraisal. As anyone who reads this blog or my published work, I'm most attracted to artists working in genres or forms in which they're least comfortable. Speaking of Widmark, his villain isn't as indelible as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death; in moments he seems to be auditioning for James Cagney's role in White Heat, all pre-Method paroxysms (Dave Kehr wrote a nice line about Widmark's acting generally in his obit). Reportedly he apologized to Poitier years later for hurling words common enough in Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta but he never lets the audience off the hook; from his lips "sambo," "nigger," and "coon" sound particularly repellent. I wish James Baldwin had written about No Way Out suitable for The Devil Finds Work, his collection of film writing.

No comments: