Friday, February 08, 2008

Physician, Heal Thy Enemy

By Odienator

For decades, Sidney Poitier was the biggest Black actor in Hollywood. As a result, he took a lot of flak from people, especially those looking back at his career from a safe point in the future. While I have an extreme dislike of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, you won't hear me say bad things about Poitier's career nor his choices. First, they were primarily the studio's choices, and second, regardless of his characters' occasional over-seasoning of nobility, Poitier played them memorably and well.

In the '60's, Poitier's roles became more noble and accepted by Whites, but in the 50's, there were a few movies where Poitier's rage was allowed some ventilation. The one that immediately springs to mind is Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, with Poitier and Curtis shackled to each other and each other's prejudices. But 8 years prior, Poitier made his debut in a little known Fox noir called No Way Out. Directed by Joe Mankiewicz and released the same year as his masterpiece, All About Eve, Out stars Fox noir staple Richard Widmark, Stephen McNally, and Linda Darnell, who worked with Mankiewicz on 1949's double Oscar winner, A Letter to Three Wives. Poitier gets fourth billing, but the role he gets is fascinating for 1950. He plays a doctor.

In all the hoopla surrounding the Oscar nominations bestowed upon Joe Mankiewicz and Eve, one other Mankiewicz Oscar nomination got lost in the cracks: Mankiewicz and co-writer Lesser Samuels received a Story and Screenplay Oscar nod for No Way Out, losing to Billy Wilder for Sunset Blvd. Samuels would be back in the nominations the next year, this time with Wilder, for Wilder's most caustic film, Ace in the Hole. I don't know if Samuels brings out the bitterness in his co-writers, but No Way Out is the cynical shocker in Mankiewicz's canon, a film about racial hatred that dropped my jaw. I can't imagine the reaction people had when they saw this picture in 1950, but it couldn't have been good. This is one nasty little number that deserves to be seen.

Until recently, I had never heard of this feature; it was introduced me to it on Turner Classic Movies. Poitier plays Dr. Luther Brooks, a new doctor in an all-White hospital. His mentor, Dr. Wharton (McNally) has a lot of faith in his abilities, though both he and Poitier know that Poitier's acceptance won't come easily. "They told me we had one of them," one doctor says to another upon seeing Poitier enter the prison ward of the hospital. "That must be him." The implicative way the doctor says "one of them," got under my skin; no matter what Poitier accomplishes, at the end of the day, he's just another nigger. Mankiewicz's camera isn't going to give us any comfort either. At several points, it sees the action through the eyes of its racist White characters, lingering on shots of Poitier's dark hands touching and prodding White skin, shooting them almost like a violation; the stark b&w cinematography makes the contrast even more apparent. Mankiewicz cuts between these shots and the look of horror on the faces of some of the White characters, something Norman Jewison would do 17 years later during the corpse examining scene in In The Heat of the Night.

As soon as Brooks gets to the prison ward, the Biddle brothers are wheeled in on gurneys. Both have been shot in the legs by cops during a robbery. Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton) is the worse for wear, barely conscious and responsive. Biddle's brother Ray (Richard Widmark) is quite conscious, and as a gang member from Beaver Canal, the White part of town, is in no mood to be examined by a Black doctor. Ray taunts Brooks, but Brooks ignores him and starts to give Johnny a spinal tap. Outside the door, another doctor and the cops who shot the Biddle brothers wonder if they should enter to see what Brooks is doing. Suddenly, Ray screams "he's killing my brother!" When the cops enter, Brooks turns to the camera with an "oh shit" look on his face. "He's dead," he tells us.

Ray goes ballistic. He firmly believes that Brooks killed his brother. Since we do not see exactly what Brooks does, the film plays with the ambiguity a moment. But then it becomes apparent that Brooks had no intention on killing Johnny Biddle. Yet he has doubts about if he did the right thing. Dr. Wharton tells Brooks that he'd probably have done the same thing, but there were other options Brooks could have performed instead. Brooks, in an attempt to exonerate himself, wants an autopsy performed. "It may prove you wrong," Dr. Wharton cautions, with a "then what" tone to his voice. Wharton tells Brooks he'll stand by his medical decision, but Brooks wants to shut Ray Biddle up once and for all.

Ray Biddle refuses to approve the autopsy, and the only other Biddle relative is a deaf mute played by Harry Bellaver. He's just as racist, and as violent, as the other Biddle brothers, and he has that screenwriter power to read lips. His disability keeps him from being able to offer consent for the autopsy, not that he would. Mankiewicz and Samuels keep Bellaver's sign language maddeningly untranslated, so when Bellaver insults Brooks and his wife, we're left to our imagination to figure out what he's saying. It's a nice touch of evil.

Wharton discovers that Johnny Biddle has a widow, Edie Johnson (Darnell). He and Brooks go to visit her, and she's the type of tough broad Darnell occasionally played for Fox. She informs Wharton that she and Johnny were divorced, and that she wants nothing to do with her former Beaver Canal life. Wharton sweet talks her into visiting Ray Biddle to convince him to approve the autopsy. It seems that Edie has turned over a new leaf, leaving behind her racist past, but when she gets to the hospital, Ray proves to be quite seductive. Apparently, they had a past, and the screenplay skirts dangerously close to causing the censor's head to explode when Ray describes what that past was. Edie almost refers to Dr. Brooks as the n-word, but catches herself and corrects her dialogue. However, after Ray convinces her that the educated Dr. Wharton was playing her for a fool, Edie lets loose. "So what are we gonna do about that nigger doctor," she asks, and the fantastic way Darnell spins the line feels like her liberation from the oppression of being open-minded. To these poor, uneducated White folks, educated Whites are as big an enemy as Blacks. Ray uses this to his advantage, and Widmark, using that rat face and slimy voice of his, is spectacular. This may be the best thing he's ever done.

Ray tells Edie to go to Beaver Canal and round up the boys for a race riot. All of the film's characters, Black and White, refer to the Black area as Niggertown. The Blacks say it with just as much venom as the Whites. Edie does what she's told, but word gets back to Niggertown that the fine folks at Beaver Canal plan to pay them a visit. I love how this occurs: someone passing for White is living in Beaver Canal and sending back information. Finally, in a movie, passing for White helps the entire community! Mankiewicz shows Edie walking through Beaver Canal, watching its denizens swing chains, whips and other instruments of destruction at imaginary Negroes. She's as terrified as we are, but then Mankiewicz pulls back to show the sneak attack being orchestrated. The folks at Beaver Canal don't know what hit them.

Back at the hospital, as gurney upon gurney of people is brought in, Ray asks the cops "so, the folks at Niggertown didn't know what hit 'em, eh?" The cop tells him "not quite. The boogees got the jump on Beaver Canal."

Black people. Attacking White people. Winning a race riot. In a movie made in 1950. What the fuck?

No Way Out is fascinating for a variety of reasons. Poitier is afforded a family and a home life, which we see in several scenes. He has a wife, Cora (Mildred Joanne Smith), a brother named John (just like Ray) played by Ossie Davis and a sister-in-law played by Ruby Dee. Poitier is also allowed to be angrier than he's ever been in a movie. Watch his reaction when an angry White woman spits in his face to keep him from examining her son. Listen to Cora's speech the scene after, where she tells Wharton how she tried to calm her husband while he told her how much he hated the racist Whites who make his job and his life a living Hell. Watch how the frustrating Mammy character who runs Wharton's household reacts to Cora one they are alone in the house (I've never seen a scene like this in any of the old movies before). As much as possible, No Way Out tries to flesh out all its characters, Black and White. You can feel the studio at times pulling them back, but what's there is bolder than much of what I've seen from this period. Some of the secondary Black characters even spout lines I'm surprised a Black person could get away with in 1950.

Dr. Brooks uses an interesting means to get his autopsy, but since this a noir, it has to lead to a confrontation between Ray, Dr. Brooks and Edie, who has sunken into self-hatred as a result of her actions. It's a horribly uncomfortable scene, as it should be, but it has a cold-as-ice punchline that plays on the old racist joke that you can't see us when you turn out the lights. As I said before, my jaw was on the floor, but damn if it wasn't a clever way to turn racism on its head.

Widmark, by all accounts a very nice man in real life, once described how hard it was to level the terrible dialogue he had to toss at his friend, Sidney Poitier. I can't stress enough just how bad that dialogue is. Every other word is nigger and coon and all manner of slur. So why am I recommending it? Because unlike so many other movies, it has a lot going on between the lines, and more importantly, I like how subversively it presents its themes. The dialogue points out that Dr. Brooks' job is more offensive than his skin color. Ray Biddle questions why this Black man has a good-paying job, yet he has to resort to criminal behavior. He never once thinks of all the effort and time Brooks put into getting his degree; his sense of entitlement blinds him.

During the showdown, Mankiewicz puts the words I wanted Sidney to say into the mouth of Linda Darnell. I would rather have heard them from Sidney, but I'm glad they were said nonetheless. As Poitier tries to honor his Hippocratic oath, Darnell speaks with the bloodlust we know Sidney feels but can't say. Suddenly, Dr. Brooks' color doesn't matter to Ray because he needs medical help, and Darnell's "fuck it and fuck him" attitude registers on Poitier's face but not in his words. It adds to the bitterness of the final line in the film, spoken by Dr. Brooks. "White boy, you're gonna live."

For a debut performance, Poitier is surprisingly good. More than most of his films, I got a sense there was rage and pride bubbling under the surface of his performance. There's something else going on inside Dr. Luther Brooks, a man who wants to serve a humanity that cringes at the mere thought of him dressing their wounds. The ending may find him more noble than we'd like, but again, we have to read between the lines to see what's really going on. Mankiewicz and Samuels allow an equal time that surprised me for a film of this era, and that's why it's worth checking out. Just to see Sidney look as if he's about to open a can of Whup-Ass on everybody.

Your Homework Assignment:

Check this one out.


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Odie, may I just state for the record, in case there was any doubt, that you're doing extraordinary work on this mammoth, demanding project. I'm in awe.

odienator said...

Thanks, Matt. I have newfound respect for people who run blogs. This is NOT easy. Next time, I'm going to just hijack an ice cream parlor. Or a bar.

Anonymous said...

Wow I'm jealous of this mammoth - its in good hands