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No Way Out (1950) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

brooks ray black edie

Principal social themes: racism/civil rights, hate groups, disabilities

20th Century Fox. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Stephen McNally, Linda Darnell, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Mildred Joanne Smith, Harry Bellayer, Stanley Ridges, Dots Johnson, Rudolph Anders, Ian Wolfe, Amanda Randolph, Will Wright, Ruth Warren, Fred Graham. Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Lesser Samuels. Cinematography by Milton Krasner. Edited by Barbara Melkan. Music by Alfred Newman. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. B&W. 106 minutes.


At one time, No Way Out was considered a highly provocative and controversial examination of racial hatred. More than fifty years later, the production still holds up very well, and it still can impress viewers as being both audacious and well balanced. The production marked the screen debut of several major black film stars such as Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis.


No Way Out opens as Ray and Johnny Biddle are brought to County General Hospital with gunshot wounds after a failed gas station holdup. Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally), chief medical officer, assigns a talented and newly certified black doctor, Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier), to oversee the prison ward. Ray (Richard Widmark), a loudmouth racist, demands a white doctor and starts to insult Brooks. The doctor is alarmed by Johnny’s symptoms, which seem more serious than a bullet wound in the leg. He suspects a brain tumor, but Johnny dies as Brooks administers a spinal tap. Ray claims that Brooks murdered his brother. Upset, Brooks turns to Wharton to discuss if he might have done anything wrong. George, a third Biddle brother (who is a deaf-mute), reads the lips of the two doctors as they have their private conversation and learns that Brooks wants to have an autopsy to determine the cause of Johnny’s death. George passes this information on to Ray, who refuses to permit an autopsy. When Wharton learns that Johnny had been married, he takes Dr. Brooks to visit Edie, the wife, to ask her permission for the autopsy, but they learn that she and Johnny were divorced. She agrees to visit Ray in the prison ward to persuade him to give his permission. It turns out, however, that she and Ray were former lovers, and he convinces her that Johnny was murdered and that the doctors want the autopsy to cover up the crime.

Ray comes from a tough district, Beaver Creek, and he and local thugs have in the past raided the adjacent black neighborhood to cause mayhem. Ray tells Edie to pass the word that it is time for an all-out raid, using Johnny’s death as an excuse. However, a rival black gang, headed by Lefty, a hospital orderly, learns about their plan. They recruit a large number of black men and attack the junkyard at Beaver Creek where the white thugs are meeting to prepare for their attack. A major race riot breaks out; this time it is Biddle’s gang who are defeated. The hospital is overwhelmed with a large number of injured. Dr. Brooks storms out of the hospital when the mother of one of the battered white men starts ranting at him. Edie seeks refuge with Dr. Wharton to confess her part in launching the violence. Wharton is later visited by Mrs. Brooks, who explains that her husband has taken a drastic step. He has gone to the police claiming that he murdered Johnny Biddle. This tactic forces the police to order an autopsy. Ray Biddle, under police escort, is taken to the coroner’s office to await the results. The procedure determines that Johnny died of a brain tumor and that Dr. Brooks’ treatment had been correct. Ray, outraged by the coroner’s verdict, escapes from police custody with George’s help. They kidnap Edie and force her to call Brooks so that he walks into a trap at Wharton’s home, where Ray is hiding. He captures the black doctor and beats him while yelling racial slurs. Meanwhile, Edie escapes from George, summons the police, and breaks in on Ray just as he is about to kill Brooks. She shuts off the lights as Ray shoots, wounding Brooks in his shoulder before the doctor knocks the gun away from him. Ray’s wounded leg starts to bleed after the scuffle. Edie tells Brooks that he should let him die, but Brooks tends to the racist’s wound until the police arrive.


A number of factors make No Way Out a milestone among social issues films. The acting is excellent across the board. Poitier’s poise and charisma are both readily apparent. His interpretation of Luther Brooks is complex, with alternating moments of self-doubt and professional competence, yet never secure in terms of his acceptance by the white world. Like Jackie Robinson when he broke the racial barrier in baseball, Brooks tries to maintain a cool exterior in the face of racist insults, but he is not always successful. Richard Widmark captures the virulent demeanor of an uneducated hatemonger to perfection. Reportedly, Widmark often apologized to Poitier after shooting scenes in which he shouted “nigger” or other racist remarks. Poitier had to keep reassuring Widmark that he knew he was only acting. Yet, Widmark’s performance as Ray Biddle also has a pathetic quality, especially toward the end, when his racism starts to come across as mental illness. Stephen McNally is adept as Dr. Wharton, a man who seems truly color blind. He supports Brooks to the hilt not because he is a black man but because he thinks he is a good doctor. Harry Bellayer’s conception of George Biddle is also surprising. The character of George is often overlooked due to his disabilities (one of the guards at the hospital refers to George as “the dummy”), yet he can be as sneaky and loathsome in his own way as his more belligerent brother.

The numerous scenes of violence and racial hatred in the film can be disturbing. One of the men at the junkyard keeps smashing a heavy chain at the wreck of a black car, urging Edie to join him in hitting the “nigger.” Somehow this is even more upsetting than the actual race riot with the black gang. The camera pulls away before any real beating can be seen, yet the overall impact is probably greater than if the scene were shot graphically. In addition, No Way Out shows that racism is not a one-way street, particularly with the character of Lefty, who can be regarded as Ray’s black counterpart in terms of racial hatred. The script uses Edie as an example of someone whose attitude changes during the film, yet this is one area that seems a bit artificial. The audience can identify with Dr. Brooks and his efforts to be professional and maintain control, yet Edie is somewhat of a cipher. She treats Brooks with dignity in the opening scene, then picks up a portion of Ray’s bigotry after talking with him, but seems to come out right again after talking with Wharton’s black cook and meeting Mrs. Brooks. No Way Out can be viewed as a virtual compendium of racial attitudes, pro, con and indifferent. A study can be made simply by the way in which all of the characters, including the minor ones, interact with Dr. Brooks. In the hospital, for example, some staff respond to him with hesitation while others treat him as they would any doctor. Some see him as a friend and equal, some as an authority figure, while others just see his color. It is equally valuable to note how Brooks responds to each individual and how it may differ from his attitude toward the members of his own family. How often does he permit himself to be himself? Rarely does a motion picture offer such a range of insights in the actions of a single character.

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