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A pivotal early film in the wave of racially progressive dramas throughout the 1950s and 1960s, No Way Out (1950) earns its place in the history books thanks to the searing feature film debut of Sidney Poitier, offering a formidable performance as a doctor tending to slum residents whose ethics are put to the test when confronted with blind racism (personified by Richard Widmark as the hateful robber Ray Biddle).
An up-and-coming theater actor, Poitier screen tested at Fox for No Way Out as a mere acting exercise with no intentions of landing the role, as he was already committed to Lost in the Stars (a musical version of Cry, the Beloved Country) on Broadway. Thanks to his agent and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Poitier wrangled out of the role and saw his salary balloon from $75 per week to $750. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Poitier felt anxiety after lying about his age, claiming to be 27 when he was only 22; as he notes in his autobiography, This Life, "because I knew they were looking for someone to play a young doctor interning in a county hospital, I figured he had to be at least twenty-seven, so I lied, and now I was afraid that if they found out, they'd fire me."
Poitier and Widmark struck up an immediate friendship and respectful partnership, with Poitier dubbing the actor "the most pleasant and refreshing surprise in my initial exposure to the Hollywood scene. The reality of Widmark was a thousand miles from the characters he played." In fact, the relationship was so respectful that Widmark felt compelled to apologize after each take in which he mistreated Poitier, both verbally and physically. The actors' performances proved especially convincing to Poitier's parents in Nassau, for whom No Way Out proved to be their first motion picture experience. According to Poitier's The Measure of a Man, they were absolutely enthralled with what they saw, letting go with 'That's my kid!' and all that. But near the end of the movie Richard Widmark pistol-whips me in the basement of some house - My mother jumps up and yells, 'Hit him back, Sidney! Hit him back! You never did nothing to him!' In front of everybody." Poitier's performance also impressed Mankiewicz, who urged the actor during filming to seek out his next part with producer Zoltan Korda. Poitier took his director's advice and, in an odd twist of fate, landed the lead in the feature film version of Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).
The story of No Way Out originated with writer Lesser Samuels, who based the narrative on his doctor son-in-law's experiences in the field. After buying the rights to the story, Mankiewicz honed the material - originally the story of a white doctor observing black medical hopefuls in the field - to more accurately reflect the action from a black doctor's viewpoint as he seeks respect in his field. Despite his contractual fourth billing (not uncommon considering the white-only attitude of Hollywood at the time), Poitier was undoubtedly the main character of the film and walked off with most of the critical accolades. His dignified, groundbreaking portrayal shattered the stereotypical portrayal of black men as cowering, obedient caricatures; fortuitously, the film's release coincided with the birth of the civil rights movement as the NAACP was first rising to prominence. The film itself performed well if not spectacularly, perhaps due in no small part to its relatively scarce venues in the South and censorship difficulties throughout the country, including a temporary ban in Chicago following a spate of real-life race riots. Controversy continued to dog the film for years as HUAC's anti-Communist investigations branded the film itself anti-American and its participants - particularly Poitier - singled out as offenders.
A frequent explorer of social issues through glossy Hollywood entertainment, Mankiewicz first earned critical attention by co-writing King Vidor's 1934 classic Our Daily Bread, and soon became a favorite director at Fox by turning out such successful melodramas as Dragonwyck (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and A Letter to Three Wives (1949). No Way Out was released the same year as his most popular film, All About Eve, which earned him Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay (a category in which No Way Out was also nominated, forcing Mankiewicz to compete against himself). The following decade saw him tackling far more lavish projects like Julius Caesar (1953), Guys and Dolls (1955), and a sanitized version of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer (1959); however, his output slowed down considerably after Fox entrusted him with one of its most opulent and ill-fated productions, 1963's Cleopatra, whose production woes have since passed into legend. That same year, Poitier fared far better; he won an Academy Award® for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field and quickly established a career as Hollywood's first black superstar.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Lesser Samuels
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Richard Widmark (Ray Biddle), Linda Darnell (Edie Johnson), Stephen McNally (Dr. Dan Wharton), Sidney Poitier (Dr. Luther Brooks), Mildred Joanne Smith (Cora Brooks), Harry Bellaver (George Biddle).
by Nathaniel Thompson