Saturday, April 6, 2024

Noir Watch: No Way Out (1950)

Watched:  04/06/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz

If you want to see a young actor show up with a ton of star power - and this was Sidney Poitier's real screen debut - seeing him in this film is extraordinary.  Heck, in most ways, this film is extraordinary.  

I thought No Way Out (1950) was a simpler film, but confess I didn't know anything about the plot or set-up.  Just that it starred young Poitier, the always great Richard Widmark and Linda Darnell, who is always a good reason to watch a film.  

Poitier plays a doctor just done with school on his first day as an official doctor.  He's sent to treat two criminals caught during a robbery, shot and in need of care.  One of them is displaying bizarre symptoms and while Poitier is looking into what ails him via a spinal tap, one of the crooks dies.  His horrendously racist brother (Widmark) is convinced Poitier killed him on purpose.  

While the hospital backs Poitier, Poitier still wants an autopsy, and so they go to the dead man's wife (Darnell) to get her to convince the brother that an autopsy should be performed.  Widmark convinces her that the hospital is looking to cover up the evidence of foul play, which she conveys to the residents of Beaver Canal, which is where the poorest (and apparently most racist) folks in their city live.  

Soon, a race riot breaks out, but rather than have it happen in their neighborhood, the Black men head to Beaver Canal.  Things get violent.

There's a wide array of characters in the film, from the progressive chief doctor supporting Poitier to the pragmatic hospital director to the elevator operator who sees Poitier as stepping outside of his place to the domestic who knows more than she says.  And, of course, Poitier's family, with a negative nelly of a matriarch.  It's a great way of showing some of the complexity everyone is dealing with, and even the purest of intentions gets mangled by agendas and scars (some literal).  

I wasn't expecting a movie this blunt in it's acknowledgement and depiction of social inequity, race relations both within the confines of the hospital and out on the streets, or the light on the manipulative, conspiratorial, victim-mindset of Widmark's character, something we see now daily in the media.  And while I don't expect for racism to be *fixed*, it's wild to see a mostly undiscussed movie from 74 years ago having the same conversation (and imagining the NYT heading to Beaver Canal to hear about economic anxiety).  

Poitier's character has lived hard, done everything he's supposed to do and far, far more, and all it takes is one asshole with privilege of whiteness to fuck up, possibly, his whole career/ life.  As direct as much of the messaging is, there's a lot of between-the-lines reading for the White audience to do about how Poitier is treated when he does achieve success, from how he feels imposter syndrome to everyone's take on him, like a Rorschach test. 

Darnell also has a pretty complicated role here, and as always - she's good.  And she's got some meaty stuff to do, certainly.  But it's clear Poitier and the supporting family characters are doing some brave work, as is Widmark playing an absolute shitheel.  It did occur to me, I've largely seen Darnell in costume and period stuff, so just seeing her in street clothes was kind of wild.

There aren't that many movies we lump in as film noir from this era that have a Black lead, but I do think this one qualifies as noir, not just because Criterion has included it in its Peak Noir collection (which is rad), but because it hits a bunch of the checkmarks of noir incredibly hard, especially "I'm in over my head in a situation minimally of my own making".  What it clearly is not, however, because Poitier gave into some impulse (he didn't kill the brother or do it to get a girl, for example).  And things get wildly out of control.  

Anyway - remarkable film.  Like anything that's got a fundamentally depressing message, it's tough to say "this is enjoyable" and it's about as subtle as a hammer to the head, but maybe addressing very real world stuff we grapple with so poorly needs to be said in plain words.

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