Joseph Mankiewicz (left), Linda Darnell, and Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier and Mildred Joanne Smith
NO WAY OUT A
USA (106 mi) 1950 d: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Ain’t that a lot to ask of us — being better than them when we get killed proving we’re just as good?
—Lefty Jones (Dots Johnson)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz comes from a distinguished family, as his older brother Herman was a co-writer of CITIZEN KANE (1941) along with Orson Welles, while he is the great uncle to Ben, a regular host introducing films for TCM. A prolific writer, director and producer, he was one of Hollywood’s most literate and intelligent filmmakers, winning Best Director Academy Awards two years in a row for A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), the second director to accomplish that following John Ford’s awards for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), though Mankiewicz is the one and only writer/director to win successive Academy Awards as both a screenwriter and director for the same films. He built a successful career as a screenwriter in the 30’s and 40’s for Paramount and MGM before getting the opportunity to direct in the mid 40’s for 20th Century Fox under Darryl Zanuck, where his films developed a smart reputation for distinguished wordplay, where he had a lifelong affection for the New York theater scene. By the time he made this film, Mankiewicz was also President of the Screen Director’s Guild during the rise of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist of 1947 when the industry was attempting to eradicate Communists from their ranks. He opposed mandatory loyalty oaths for Guild members, which led to an attempted coup by Cecil B. DeMille to have him recalled from office (DGA Quarterly Magazine | Spring 2011 | Features - Loyalty Oath), but the bid failed. Few members opposed the oath, which was eventually written into the by-laws the following year, but they resented the compulsory aspect of it. Nonetheless, it played a significant role in Mankiewicz refusing a second term and deciding to leave Hollywood the following year. For whatever reasons, in a career that spans from 1929 to 1972, his name is not usually included in the pantheon of great American directors, where he is heralded more in Europe than he is at home, honored with a lifetime achievement award and an accompanying film restrospective at the 1979 Venice Film Festival. Made at the height of his success, career-wise, what distinguishes this picture is the direct assault on the invidious effects of racism, hiding nothing, as it’s not shrouded in subtlety, where the N-word and all variations of heinous racial slurs are brazenly on display, opening the floodgates for vicious race hatred, one of the few Hollywood films to deal so realistically on such a sensitive topic, especially since black filmmakers have been virtually absent from Hollywood after the 1940’s. Richard Widmark gets top billing as an avowed white supremacist spewing racial vitriol throughout the film, most of it targeting a single black doctor at a hospital, where the horrendous verbal assault is so incredibly offensive that nothing like this could be made in films today. Few other directors would ever attempt to do what Mankiewicz, to his credit, excels at, co-written by Lesser Samuels, who was also a co-writer on Billy Wilder’s equally devastating ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), basing the material on his son-in-law’s experience of being a lone black doctor at that time, mirroring Jackie Robinson’s experiences breaking the color barrier in baseball, having to endure a constant stream of vicious racial attacks. Under Mankiewicz’ direction, Widmark isn’t viewed so much as a criminal sociopath, but an extreme reflection of a larger community, which makes the film more compelling. While Hollywood had taken a few stabs at movies depicting racism, like Elia Kazan’s PINKY (1949) or Stanley Kramer’s HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949), both of which represent liberal attempts to sympathize with the black plight, but at the expense of realism, as these are clearly white views on the black experience that reveal much more about the white perception. Mankiewicz’ film is far more complex, notable for being the screen debut for actor Sidney Poitier (who has an uncredited role in an earlier film), who lied about his age to get the part, claiming he was 27 when he was only 22, playing a black doctor fresh out of medical school, and the object of Widmark’s ire.
Interestingly, the film also features a deaf character, whose limitations figure prominently into the storyline, requiring several actors to learn sign language in order to communicate. Despite the care and precautions in shaping the story, the film was banned outright or scenes cut out in order to be shown in certain cities around the country, fearing racial unrest, playing well in big cities, but failing miserably in small towns, while most theaters in the South refused to screen the picture under any circumstances. Wasting little time, the film gets right into it, with white doctors at the County Hospital led by chief medical resident Dr. Daniel Wharton (Stephen McNally) seen congratulating the first black doctor at the hospital and welcoming him to their ranks, Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier, who is really the lead character, but receives fourth billing), who just passed the state board examination to earn a license to practice, signing on as a junior resident for another year at the hospital where he trained. Eager to work his first night shift in the hospital’s prison ward, two brothers are brought in after getting shot trying to rob a gas station, Johnny and Ray Biddle, Dick Paxton and Richard Widmark, both shot in the leg. While Johnny is more gravely wounded, seemingly disoriented, unable to feel a lit cigarette lying on the palm of his hand, Ray is adamantly against treatment from a black doctor, immediately hurling startling racial epithets at him, the likes of which we rarely hear in movies. First examining his eyes, thinking he may have a brain tumor, the patient dies on the table when Brooks attempts to administer a spinal tap, with Ray immediately blaming the black doctor for his brother’s death, calling it outright murder. The ferocious tone of hatred and contempt is stark and to the point, so potently realistic that Brooks begins to question his own actions, wondering if perhaps the relentless assault to his character threw him off momentarily. Wharton warns him not to second guess himself, reminding him that he acted professionally, but doesn’t go as far as saying he would have done the same thing, suggesting there may have been other factors. Feeling slighted by the character assassination, Brooks wants to perform an autopsy to confirm his diagnosis, but Wharton indicates state law requires consent by the family. When the two doctors approach Ray, he grows wildly agitated at the thought, claiming the doctors are in cahoots with one another, that they would mischaracterize the results just to get Brooks off the hook, reiterating he’s nothing more than a murderer. Just a decade after the film was made, the theme of the 60’s was racial tolerance, with school integration a focal point in alleviating the vast economic disparities, but now since the election of Trump the sentiment has changed 180 degrees, where the theme of the modern era is back to racial intolerance. It’s confounding how much a picture made 70 years ago brings to light a fresh perspective on a longstanding issue that still plagues us today, as Widmark’s ingrained white supremacist views, with a susceptibility to believe in unproven conspiracy theories, are perfectly in line with the most vociferous Trump supporters of today, especially those wielding automatic weapons while shouting anti-government slogans, mirroring Trump’s cry of “Fake News,” which is how the Ku Klux Klan has altered and resurrected their inflammatory fanaticism, shrouding their abominable racial views in anti-government rhetoric. With the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Widmark’s voracious anti-black views are precisely what many of the most ardent Trump followers have in mind. It’s impossible to watch this film today and not think of all the vile white supremacists who have crawled out from every rock and crevice in the past few years, where there has been a surge in white nationalist violence (White nationalist hate groups have grown 55% in Trump era ...). For them, Widmark’s Ray Biddle is their proud spokesperson and role model.
Seeking other family members who might consent to an autopsy, Wharton and Brooks discover from police records that the deceased was married to Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), openly suspicious of the visitors, but their kindness towards her takes her by surprise. Darnell actually steals the film, claiming this was the only role in her lifetime that she was proud of, also appearing in John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), but Darnell loathed Westerns, with unfortunate circumstances following her throughout her career, plagued by extortion letters, a fraudulent business manager that stole her money, her reputation tainted from ugly tabloid fodder provided by her own mother, largely exploited by the industry, living a sad life that included a longtime affair with the director, who never left his wife, so she never received the kind of appreciation and respect she was seeking, yet she is excellent in this film, carrying herself with a little attitude and swagger that no one else exhibits, and it’s apparent immediately. Edie actually divorced Johnny over a year ago and has no love lost for the entire family, having grown up in a white slum neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks called Beaver Canal, feeling it never leaves you even after you escape, as it has a way of making people feel cheap. Ironically, the music playing on the radio in her rented single room is the sophisticated black jazz of Duke Ellington. She visits Ray to persuade him to order the autopsy, but his twisted mind brings her back to her old worthless life, including an ill-advised affair they had together under his brother’s nose, telling her the doctors played her for a “chump,” as they only want it to cover up their crime, that Johnny never would have died with a white doctor, instructing her to contact Rocky (Bert Freed) in Beaver Canal, who stirs up racial animosity, planning a race riot that evening in the black neighborhood they describe as “Niggertown.” Brooks has a sympathetic wife Cora (Mildred Joanne Smith in her lone movie appearance), living with his mother (Maude Simmons), sister Connie (Ruby Dee) and brother-in-law John (Ossie Davis), married in real life, the first picture that they worked together. When blacks get word of what’s in store that evening, they make their own plans to initiate an attack to catch the white rabble rousers off guard. The confrontation leaves plenty injured, with Brooks tending to a white patient at the hospital until a white woman orders him to “Keep your black hands off my boy” before spitting in his face. After a dramatic pause, a stunned Brooks exits the premises and disappears. Edie, meanwhile, shows up at Wharton’s doorstep in a state of drunken dismay, tended to by Wharton’s black housekeeper Gladys (Amanda Randolph, superb in her role), angry that she’s black, but too drunk to do anything about it. By morning they’re best of friends, as Gladys simply exudes personality and has a folksy way of putting anyone at ease. This relationship is at the heart of the film, as it reveals quite simply that once fears and differences are set aside people from differing backgrounds have a lot more in common than they suspect, finding it easy to like each other, so Edie actually represents positive growth, exhibiting signs of hope. The same can’t be said for Ray, whose venomous hate drives his every action, escaping from the police, then kidnapping Edie, beating her into submission to call Brooks and set him up at a place where Ray will be waiting. While there are some contrivances, it’s important to realize how well this material was actually handled in an era when no one else displayed half the insight or artistic dexterity with such a provocative subject matter. In the same year that Mankiewicz was showered with a record 14 Academy Award nominations for ALL ABOUT EVE, winning six awards, this little film fell under the radar and is rarely mentioned, yet it’s dramatic impact is stunning, with Widmark and Poitier, friends in real life, offering stellar performances that hold up over time, portraying the opposite ends of the spectrum, both angered and frustrated by their limited influence, with circumstances challenging their manhood and self-respect. Poitier’s dignified performance shattered stereotypes, but he wasn’t playing that idealized black man so early in his career, instead remaining conflicted, filled with exposed insecurities and flaws that leave him more human, making this a rare film experience, told intelligently and with bold assurance from Mankiewicz, who is perhaps the only American writer/director who could do justice with this material, allowing multiple revelations at every turn. Along with John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), and more recently Raoul Peck’s 2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro, this belongs on a short list of the best films ever made about being black in America.