Cast & Crew
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Mildred Joanne Smith
Dr. Luther Brooks, an intern who has just passed the state board examination to qualify for his license to practice, is the first African-American doctor at the urban county hospital at which he trained. Because he lacks self-confidence, Luther requests to work as a junior resident at the hospital for another year. Johnny and Ray Biddle, brothers who were both shot in the leg by a policeman as they attempted a robbery, are brought to the hospital's prison ward. As Luther tends to the disoriented Johnny, he is bombarded with racist slurs by Ray, who grew up in Beaver Canal, the white working class section of the city. Believing that Johnny has a brain tumor, Luther administers a spinal tap, but Johnny dies during the procedure. Wondering if Ray's antagonism may have caused him to be careless, Luther consults his mentor, chief medical resident Dr. Daniel Wharton, and Wharton concedes that a brain tumor was only one possibility. Feeling that he must prove the accuracy of his diagnosis, Luther requests an autopsy, but Wharton informs him that according to state law, they cannot proceed without the permission of the deceased's family. When Ray refuses, as he does not want his brother's body to be cut up, Wharton confers with the head of the hospital, Dr. Sam Moreland, about requisitioning an autopsy. Moreland, aware that a scandal over the black doctor's actions could endanger funding, denies the request in the hope that the incident will be forgotten. Upon learning from police records that Johnny was married, Wharton and Luther visit his widow, Edie Johnson, who tells the doctors that she divorced Johnny a year and a half ago, and that she hates his whole family. Although she does not reveal it to Wharton, his sympathetic attitude persuades her to visit Ray to ask about the autopsy. Ray tells her, however, that Johnny would be alive if he had had a white doctor, and that Wharton wants to have the autopsy to cover up the truth about Luther's actions. Edie's racist feelings are revived by Ray, with whom she had committed adultery, and he convinces her that Wharton played her for a "chump," and that she can make up for her past infidelity to Johnny by contacting Beaver Canal club owner Rocky Miller and telling him about Johnny's death. Accompanied by Ray's other brother George, who is a deaf-mute, Edie goes to the club, where Rocky and his pals lay plans to attack the black section of town, which they call "Niggertown." Although Edie desperately wishes to leave, Rocky forces her to stay. Meanwhile, Luther arrives at the hospital and learns about the upcoming attack from Lefty Jones, a black elevator operator. Luther tries to dissuade Lefty from organizing a counterattack, but Lefty reminds him of a race riot that occured while Luther was away at school, during which Lefty and his sister were beaten. Luther then contacts Alderman Tompkins to try to avert the riot, while Lefty and a large group of blacks, including Luther's brother-in-law John, meet and plan their strategy. Edie watches in disgust as the whites prepare their weapons, but leaves before the blacks surprise the whites by attacking first. As victims of the riots are brought in to the hospital, Wharton is called in from home. Before he departs, however, a drunken and disheartened Edie arrives at his house, and Wharton leaves her in the care of his black maid, Gladys. Although Edie fears that Gladys will harm her because of her connection to the riot, Gladys tenderly cares for her when she collapses. At the hospital, Luther tends to the victims until a white woman orders him to take his "black hands" off her son. Stunned, Luther walks out, and the next morning, after Wharton returns home to find Edie chatting with Gladys, Luther's wife Cora arrives and announces that Luther has given himself up to the police for the murder of Johnny Biddle. Cora relates that after he left the hospital, Luther realized that the coronor would be forced to conduct an autopsy if he were charged with murder. Wharton assures Cora that he will stand by Luther, and after he leaves with Edie, Cora's stoic demeanor in front of the whites crumbles and she cries in Gladys' arms. Following the autopsy, the coroner confirms that Johnny died of a brain tumor and that Luther was justified in performing the spinal tap. Wharton, Cora and Edie are pleased that Luther has been exonerated, but Ray insists that the doctors are conspiring to bury the truth. Luther leaves with Cora, following by Edie, who denounces Ray before she departs. After overhearing Wharton tell the coroner that he is leaving town for a much-needed rest, Ray and George overpower the police guard and escape. When Edie returns to her apartment, she finds Ray and George waiting, and Ray, whose leg is bleeding profusely, beats Edie to make her call Luther and tell him to meet Wharton at his house. Drunk and in shock, Ray raves that he is going to kill Luther, then leaves Edie with George. By turning up the volume on her radio, which George does not notice, Edie cause her neighbors to break down her door, then escapes and calls the hospital prison ward for help. Meanwhile, when Luther enters Wharton's house, Ray holds a gun on him, beats hi and shouts racist slurs. Edie arrives and tries to stop Ray from killing Luther, but Ray's physical pain and obsessive hatred have pushed him beyond reason. Edie turns out the lights as Ray shoots at Luther, and although Luther is wounded in the shoulder, he retrieves Ray's gun as he collapses in pain. Edie coldly tells Luther to let Ray's leg bleed, but Luther asserts that he cannot kill Ray simply because of his racism, then uses the gun and Edie's scarf to fashion a tourniquet. As a siren announces the arrival of the police, Luther tells the hysterical Ray, "Don't cry, white boy, you're gonna live."
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Mildred Joanne Smith
Victor Kilian Sr.
J. Louis Johnson
Eda Reiss Merin
William R. Klein
Sam Marlowe Jr.
Valentine A. Becker
George W. Davis
Charles Le Maire
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Dr. Benjamin Sacks
Darryl F. Zanuck
Darryl F. Zanuck
Best Writing, Screenplay
No Way Out
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
No Way Out
Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
He was born Raiford Chatman Davis on December 18, 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia. His parents called him "R.C." When his mother registered his birth, the county clerk misunderstood her and thought she said "Ossie" instead of "R.C.," and the name stuck. He graduated high school in 1936 and was offered two scholarships: one to Savannah State College in Georgia and the other to the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he could not afford the tuition and turned them down. He eventually saved enough money to hitchhike to Washington, D.C., where he lived with relatives while attending Howard University and studied drama.
As much as he enjoyed studying dramatics, Davis had a hunger to practice the trade professionally and in 1939, he left Howard University and headed to Harlem to work in the Rose McClendon Players, a highly respected, all-black theater ensemble in its day.
Davis' good looks and deep voice were impressive from the beginning, and he quickly joined the company and remained for three years. With the onset of World War II, Davis spent nearly four years in service, mainly as a surgical technician in an all-black Army hospital in Liberia, serving both wounded troops and local inhabitants before being transferred to Special Services to write and produce stage shows for the troops.
Back in New York in 1946, Davis debuted on Broadway in Jeb, a play about a returning black soldier who runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan in the deep south. His co-star was Ruby Dee, an attractive leading lady who was one of the leading lights of black theater and film. Their initial romance soon developed into a lasting bond, and the two were married on December 9, 1948.
With Hollywood making much more socially conscious, adult films, particularly those that tackled themes of race (Lonely Are The Brave, Pinky, Lost Boundaries all 1949), it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling for Davis. His first film, with which he co-starred with his wife Dee, was a tense Joseph L. Mankiewicz's prison drama with strong racial overtones No Way Out (1950). He followed that up with a role as a cab driver in Henry Hathaway's Fourteen Hours (1951). Yet for the most part, Davis and Dee were primarily stage actors, and made few film appearances throughout the decade.
However, in should be noted that much of Davis time in the '50s was spent in social causes. Among them, a vocal protest against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and an alignment with singer and black activist Paul Robeson. Davis remained loyal to Robeson even after he was denounced by other black political, sports and show business figures for his openly communist and pro-Soviet sympathies. Such affiliation led them to suspicions in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early '50s, but Davis, nor his wife Dee, were never openly accused of any wrongdoing.
If there was ever a decade that Ossie Davis was destined for greatness, it was undoubtly the '60s. He began with a hit Broadway show, A Raisin in the Sun in 1960, and followed that up a year later with his debut as a playwright - the satire, Purlie Victorious. In it, Davis starred as Purlie, a roustabout preacher who returns to southern Georgia with a plan to buy his former master's plantation barn and turn it into a racially integrated church.
Although not an initial success, the play would be adapted into a Tony-award winning musical, Purlie years later. Yet just as important as his stage success, was the fact that Davis' film roles became much more rich and varied: a liberal priest in John Huston's The Cardinal (1963); an unflinching tough performance as a black soldier who won't break against a sadistic sergeant's racial taunts in Sidney Lumet's searing war drama The Hill (1965); and a shrewd, evil butler who turns the tables on his employer in Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969).
In 1970, he tried his hand at film directing, and scored a hit with Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), a sharp urban action comedy with Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques as two black cops trying to stop a con artist from stealing Harlem's poor. It's generally considered the first major crossover film for the black market that was a hit with white audiences. Elsewhere, he found roles in some popular television mini-series such as King, and Roots: The Next Generation (both 1978), but for the most part, was committed to the theater.
Happily, along came Spike Lee, who revived his film career when he cast him in School Daze (1988). Davis followed that up with two more Lee films: Do the Right Thing (1989), and Jungle Fever (1991), which also co-starred his wife Dee. From there, Davis found himself in demand for senior character parts in many films throughtout the '90s: Grumpy Old Men (1993), The Client (1994), I'm Not Rappaport (1996), and HBO's remake of 12 Angry Men (1997).
Davis and Dee celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 with the publication of a dual autobiography, In This Life Together, and in 2004, they were among the artists selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. Davis had been in Miami filming an independent movie called Retirement with co-stars George Segal, Rip Torn and Peter Falk.
In addition to his widow Dee, Davis is survived by three children, Nora Day, Hasna Muhammad and Guy Davis; and seven grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Ossie Davis (1917-2005)
Richard Widmark was apparently very uncomfortable with some of the racist comments his character, Ray Biddle, made, especially given his friendship with Sidney Poitier. As a result, after some of the takes involving particularly venomous remarks, Widmark actually apologized to Poitier for the remarks his character had made.
Sidney Poitier lied to director Mankiewicz and told him he was 27, when actually only 22 years old.
According to various news items and information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Twentieth Century-Fox purchased the motion picture rights to Lester Samuels' original story in January 1949 and signed him to a ten-week contract to write the screenplay. Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros. and Columbia also had bid for the rights. Samuels, in a New York Times article dated July 30, 1950, stated that he originally wanted to write about "the cancerous results of hatred," but did not intend to focus on an African-American doctor until he learned from colleagues of his daughter's fiancé, a doctor, about the problems faced by African-Americans doctors. According to correspondence in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, a number of Fox producers who examined the story before the purchase were enthusiastic about it and wanted to produce it, including Otto Preminger, Sol Siegel and Nunnally Johnson. Johnson called the story, "the most reasonable approach to the racial question in a dramatic form that I have seen. It argues for professional fairness and equality, not for social reasons but for purely practical purposes." According to a December 29, 1948 memo, Fox public relations counsel Jason Joy was concerned about "the violence which this story contains and the fear that might be raised in some quarters that it might touch off violence in their sections of the country." After the purchase of Samuels' story, writer Philip Yordan made a number of suggestions that were incorporated into the final film. He advised going "into Luther's home. We will see real Negroes and how they live, as human beings. He will have a real brother, a real sister, a real father and mother-all human beings." In a later memo, studio production head Darryl F. Zanuck stated that the film was to "conscientiously avoid propaganda, but at the same time the final result of our efforts should be a picture which is actually powerful propaganda against intolerance." Zanuck, like Joy, worried about the violence in the story and warned, "even in certain so-called white cities, such as Detroit, Omaha, St. Louis and Philadelphia, we are apt to have the picture banned totally by the Police Commission. We already know that we will lose about 3,000 accounts in the South who will not play the picture under any circumstances. But it would be a terrible thing if we have something in the picture which would give the so-called white cities a chance to turn us down because then the picture will be a fatal financial disaster." Although, in February 1949, Zanuck liked the ending of the current script, in which "Luther" was killed, he changed his mind by April 1949 and wrote in a conference note that the ending left a "feeling of utter futility. Luther, a wonderful character, is hideously slaughtered. If his death resulted in something, if something were accomplished either characterwise or otherwise, it would be different and I would accept it." Joseph Mankiewicz prepared a preliminary script in June 1949, with a new story line and new characterizations, which Zanuck approved in August 1949.
A October 17, 1949 Los Angeles Daily News article asserted that the picture, which was about to start shooting, "will differ from its predecessors in that it will consider Negroes as everyday citizens in a big American city. Previous pictures have dealt with less representative phases of Negro life." In the article, Mankiewicz stated, "we are dealing with the absolute blood and guts, the bread and potatoes, so to speak, of Negro hating. Darryl F. Zanuck decided to produce this picture because, as he said, 'We want to tell a story of the Negro in a white man's everyday world, rather than the Negro in the Negro's world.' We are going to show the kind of hate the Negro runs up against in his daily life, how he is afraid to walk on certain streets." Studio press material noted that the studio delayed the film so that it would be released a year after Pinky (see below) in order to achieve "a gradual build-up to audience receptivity."
No Way Out marked the feature film debut of Sidney Poitier, who, according to studio publicity, had earlier appeared in three Signal Corps short films. The picture also marked the screen debut of Ossie Davis (1917-2005), and was the first film in which Davis appeared with his wife, Ruby Dee. The couple appeared together in numerous films, plays and television programs before his death in 2005. Stephen McNally was borrowed from Universal for the production, for which technical director Valentine A. Becker, a California State Rehabilitation Officer for the Deaf, taught sign language to Linda Darnell, Richard Widmark and Harry Bellaver. "Alderman Mathew Tompkins," the character portrayed by Bill Walker, is referred to twice in the film, but was not seen in the print viewed.
According to a August 23, 1950 Daily Variety news item, the National League of Decency condemned the film. In Chicago, on August 22, 1950, police captain Harry Fullmer held up a permit for exhibition of the film in the city and recommended banning the film to police commissioner John Prendergast because it "might cause more racial unrest than we have now," according to a August 24, 1950 Hollywood Citizen-News article. On the day of Fullmer's action, Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, sent a telegram to Chicago Mayor Martin D. Kennelly objecting to the ban, according to information in the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress. White wrote, "This picture is the most forthright and courageous picturization of the evil of race prejudice which has yet been made....No Way Out exposes the evil nature of [racial prejudice] and instead of inciting to riot as police censor claims [it] will do enormous good in the exactly opposite direction." After Commissioner Prendergast approved the ban, the Chicago Sun-Times published an editorial on August 28, 1950 sharply criticizing the censors. Mankiewicz, who called the ban "absurd," was quoted by Life as saying, "I find it highly commendable for the city fathers to be keeping Chicago, with its high cultural standards, isolated from any violence." The mayor convened a special committee of the Cook County Crime Prevention Bureau, and after a screening on 30 Aug, they recommended to the mayor that the ban be rescinded, according to news items. Mayor Kennelly lifted the ban after three to four minutes of the film were cut, including scenes of blacks and whites preparing for the riot.
In Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the film was shown in a cut version, and the film was prohibited from being shown on Sundays in Massachusetts. At the time of the Chicago ban, an official of Fox's sales department stated that no attempt had been made to release the film in the South. After the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors deleted scenes of blacks preparing to defend themselves before the riot and a subsequent scene showing the victory of the blacks, the NAACP branches in Baltimore and Maryland complained that the film's "original message is hopelessly lost." Walter White and officers of the local branches wrote to the board urging that the film be restored to its uncut state, or, barring that, for the board to delete scenes of racial epithets, but the board refused to change its decision. In explaining the refusal to White, board chairman Sidney Traub noted that the board and local police departments found the actions of the blacks during the riot scenes to be "highly provocative and crime inciting."
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, at a meeting in mid-October 1950, the board of directors of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association adopted a resolution to protest "the use of epithets in all motion pictures and particularly the excessive employment of these epithets in the motion picture, No Way Out.... Its authors err in their belief that in order to make the villain thoroughly contemptible, he and others, on thirty-five different occasions utter indecent epithets applied to the colored race. Some of these terms of opprobrium have never been heard or used by millions of Americans of both races. Their employment in the motion picture screens throughout the country builds up a vocabulary of undesirable expressions which should not be spoken in decent society." The resolution was sent to the PCA, which responded, "The company which produced it has stated, quite frankly, that they deliberately sought to be as forceful and dramatic as possible for the sake of the Negro, having no thought to hurt him, but, rather, to help him."
Reviews were mixed concerning the film. Motion Picture Herald commented, "The screen has tackled the problem of race prejudice in various ways ever since Hollywood acquired a social conscience, but rarely has it come to grips with the whole tragic question quite so dramatically and forcefully as in this picture." The reviewer stated that the film "makes its point without flinching and with little regard for the feelings of the white audience." Daily Variety, however called it "tedious with words" and Fortnight was critical of the film's "lack of genuine feeling and insight into the motives of the very people it pretends to champion." Saturday Review (of Literature) reviewer Hollis Alpert's comment that "at some points this movie made me uncomfortable," provoked an angry letter from Walter White, who questioned, "I wonder what would have happened to [Alpert's] stomach had he been with me when I investigated a lynching in Georgia some years ago of an eight-months-pregnant Negro mother who had committed the crime of crying out in her grief that her recently lynched husband was innocent? Or if he had been with me in Detroit as policemen directed Negroes into the hands of mobs who slew their victims with incredible bestiality?" Alpert responded that he and White stood for the same things, but that Hollywood is "ducking its responsibility when it insists upon casting its problem films in sheerly melodramatic terms."
The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay: Mankiewicz and Samuels). New York foreign language press film critics gave Zanuck a special award for "great timeliness and unusual entertainment value which makes a major contribution to the advancement of improved race relations in the United States."