Seminal Image #101

No Way Out
(Joseph L. Mankiewicz; 1950)

At least one universe away from "All About Eve" and "A Letter to Three Wives", Joseph Mankiewicz's "No Way Out" is still, despite a marginal cop-out of an ending, one of the bravest films to come out of Hollywood. In an era (and from a studio; 20th Century-Fox) where above-the-line Social Consciousness films were of the "Pinky"/"Gentleman's Agreement" variety . . . movies about racism and anti-semitism designed not to offend either racists or anti-semites . . . "No Way Out" wasn't looking to "understand" what lay beneath white bigotry (as if that were mitigating or even relevant), it sought to take a flame-thrower to it.

The first American film to portray white bigots using the 'N' word with abandon, or African-Americans directly and violently retailating against racism, "No Way Out" must have seemed like something from another planet to audiences in 1950. Nobody, not even bigots, expected to see a Hollywood film that presented racism, almost matter-of-factly, as a form of mental disease or a moral failing comparable to the worst kind of degeneracy. I'm guessing this is why it didn't have anything like the impact it might have (it should have made Sidney Poitier, in his screen debut, an instant star); people who went to see it probably couldn't believe their eyes. Even . . . in some ways especially . . . today, such a film from Hollywood would still be hard to imagine. But it wouldn't be any less welcome


Ivan G. said...

No Way Out was the first Widmark vehicle that made me realize what a delectable bastard he could be. Oh sure, he shoved an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs but in Out he was a real nasty piece of work. Only Robert Ryan in Crossfire and Odds Against Tomorrow comes close.

Tom Sutpen said...

Of all the psychos Widmark played for 20th Century-Fox, his turn as Ray Biddle in "No Way Out" outdistanced them all; even Tommy Udo in Hathaway's "Kiss of Death" (a vastly overrated noir, IMO).

What's fascinating to me . . . though it's possible I'm only seeing things . . . are the echoes of Ray Biddle that Widmark worked into a later film he appeared in with Poitier, "The Bedford Incident". They're extremely subtle, and if you blink you'll miss them, but in the scene where Poitier interviews him in his cabin I'd swear there are the smallest of echoes that Widmark is deliberately working into the scene.

Like I said, I could be wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.

Ivan G. said...

Nah, you're not wrong--because I noticed the very same thing when watching Bedford. A friend of mine took me to see Crimson Tide when it was playing in the theaters and asked me what I thought when it was over. I said, "I saw it before--when it was The Bedford Incident."

Rob said...

I loved Widmark in "Yellow Sky", one of my favorite Westerns, but how do you honestly portray a character named Comanche Todd, for chrisakes? TODD? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?, Over. Jeez what a wimpey name for a supposed hellion. Our whole family laughed out loud when that name came outta his mouth in "The Last Wagon" when we saw it on TV.