Wednesday, May 13, 2015

White Riot

Film: No Way Out
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I like film noir. I like it a lot, so I tend to spend a lot of time watching black-and-white films from the 1940s and 1950s. Of course I watch everything, but I’m always happy when a noir shows up in the mailbox. I wasn’t aware No Way Out was, in fact, a film noir until I popped it in and watched the first couple of minutes. This is not a traditional film noir in any sense, but it certainly fits into a place in the genre.

The reason No Way Out is more or less a stealth noir is that the surface story is entirely about race and racism. We’re presented with newly minted Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier in his big screen debut, at least in a credited role). Luther has been working in a county hospital, and plans to hang around to get a little more experience. Actually, he’s hanging around because being a black doctor in the 1950s was not the sort of thing that many people were prepared to deal with.

Anyway, enter the Biddle brothers: Johnny Biddle (an uncredited Dick Paxton) and his brother Ray (Richard Widmark). Both of the Biddles have taken a bullet courtesy of the police, and Luther has been charged with fixing them up. Unfortunately, both of them, particularly Ray, are blazing racists. Luther checks them out and notices there is something much more serious going on with Johnny. The story of how he was shot and his behavior while being check out indicate that there may well be something incredibly serious going on with him. Luther believes that Johnny may be suffering from a brain tumor. He decides to perform a spinal tap, but somehow Johnny dies on the table. Naturally this sets off Ray.

The middle of the film concerns Luther’s attempt to have an autopsy performed on the body of Johnny Biddle and Ray acting like a racist asshole. Ray enlists the support of his other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), who is deaf. This allows the two of them to communicate between each other without anyone else knowing what they are talking about. Ray naturally denies the autopsy, so Luther and his mentor Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally) look up Johnny’s ex-wife Edie (Linda Darnall). She’s no fan of the Biddles, but she’s also something of a racist herself.

The second act ends with a race riot. George has told all of Ray’s friends about the death of Johnny, and has also communicated that Ray has decided that Luther killed his brother on purpose. Meanwhile, an orderly at the hospital (Dots Johnson) has heard about what is going to happen and alerts the local black community. There’s a clash, which is great except that it doesn’t go on long enough. When Luther is attacked by a white guy’s mother, he walks out of the hospital and turns himself in to the police. The payoff here is that once he’s turned himself in for Johnny Biddle’s murder, an autopsy has to be performed on the body.

The results of that autopsy aren’t difficult to guess, of course. Ray’s actions afterwards aren’t that difficult to guess, either, but the outcome of what he does is. The end of the film is the payoff that the race riots presage, and it’s a solid ending with one of the great last lines from its decade.

I enjoyed this film a lot. I had no real expectations going in, and found something really entertaining all the way through. These are good characters who act in ways that, while not understandable in the “I’d act like that” way, they are completely believable in how the characters are presented. Edie is the most interesting character here. She goes from neutral to Ray’s side to Luther’s side, and every moment of it is completely believable.

If there’s a downside here, it’s that some of the ways the plot works really seem like “we need to have X happen, so let’s get there this way” rather than natural story elements. It feels in a couple of places, not the least of which is Johnny dying from a spinal tap, that the events are driving the plot here rather than the characters doing the heavy lifting. That’s not always a problem, but here, it’s a downside for what is otherwise an excellent film experience.

If you can overlook the parts of the plot that really feel like “we need this to happen” moments rather than legitimate events, there’s a lot here to love, including Sidney Poitier doing the sort of role he’d become famous for and Richard Widmark being one of the nastiest racists to hit the screen in…ever.

Why to watch No Way Out: Solid noir that hits the race angle hard.
Why not to watch: A few plot points are a little silly.


  1. Oh, wasn't Widmark something else? And I love Darnell here. I found the story a little out of Mankiewicz's usual line but the dialogue is as sharp as always.

    1. Yeah, I was a little surprised it was Mankiewicz behind the camera, but it's a solid film and definitely worth seeing.

  2. I saw No Way Out last night, and it seems like something I should have seen a long time ago!

    I liked it a lot.

    While I was walking the dogs, I started thinking about it as film noir, as you noted, and how all the elements add up to film noir even as the actual presentation kind of hides the noir elements. It's almost socially conscious noir.

    Also, it's not quite so apparent that it's noir because you have to figure out who the protagonist is. I started thinking about all three of the main characters - Dr. Brooks, Ray Biddle and Edie Johnson - as the main protagonist. All three of them are in way over their heads and they all go through story arcs and transformations. It's very unusual for film noir to do this (unless I just never noticed before.)

    I also noted that this film uses the n-word more times than Blazing Saddles. (It was bleeped out when I saw it - stupid MOVIES! channel!)

    1. Socially conscious noir isn't a bad description. Honeslty, I think the noir label is big enough that it can handle including a movie like this one within its folds.

      It is a very strange movie in a lot of respects, though, but strange in pretty good ways.