NO WAY OUT
Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., Jan. 21, 2000
NO WAY OUTD: Joseph Mankiewicz (1950); with Sidney Poitier, Linda Darnell, Richard Widmark, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee.
D: Roger Corman (1961); with William Shatner, Robert Emhardt, Leo Gordon, Frank Maxwell. In No Way Out, Ray Biddle (Widmark) is shot along with his brother in a foiled gas station robbery. The two are rushed to the county hospital's prison ward, where resident Dr. Brooks (Poitier) attends to them. Although the brother only took a superficial bullet wound to the leg, he is unresponsive, and Brooks suspects an underlying neurological problem. The doctor attempts a spinal tap, but the man dies during the procedure (while his brother watches). Ray Biddle is a vicious race-baiter who taunts Brooks from the moment he is admitted and is convinced that Brooks deliberately killed his brother. Biddle won't authorize a postmortem examination to confirm the doctor's suspicions; even after a third party does the autopsy, Biddle is still not convinced that the surgeon didn't murder him in an effort to get back at him for his abuse. Swearing revenge, Biddle incites a race riot among the denizens of Beaver Canal, the white slum he hails from; however, word gets to the black ghetto first, and the battle is brought to Beaver Canal instead. Biddle then singles out Brooks for his own hate-twisted vengeance. Widmark is excellent in a role that fits nicely into the giggling-psycho mold that he was often stuck with after his debut in Kiss of Death a few years earlier. The film also marks the screen debuts of Poitier (at age 22), Dee, and Davis; Poitier shows tremendous restraint and dignity as Biddle provokes him. Hollywood old-timer Mankiewicz brought a grimy noir verisimilitude to the picture's mean streets; the riot segment admittedly has the look of a studio back lot but is so well-choreographed when the violence explodes that it's still very convincing. No Way Out does show its age, however, in the gingerly way that it deals with the race issues. At times the screenplay is almost patronizing, especially when it pertains to Brooks' family (the hospital administrator declares, "Why if anything, you could say I'm pro-Negro!"). Nonetheless, it took considerable courage to write such a frank movie in 1950. Daryl F. Zanuck himself doubled up as studio exec and producer for the film, as he had on 1947's anti-Semitism "message film" Gentleman's Agreement. Just as he had on the '47 film, Zanuck ran up against considerable opposition from fellow executives who didn't want to see the film made at all, but he rammed it through anyway. Despite moments of heavy-handedness, No Way Out is still a fairly harsh movie to watch, filled with every racial insult and epithet imaginable. Story has it that Widmark himself was so uncomfortable with the Biddle character that he apologized to Poitier repeatedly for the lines his character was saying.
Corman's 1961 The Intruder has a very young Shatner as Adam Cramer, a traveling spokesman for the Patrick Henry Society. He blows into a small town (filmed on location in Sikeston, Missouri) that is in the throes of school integration and whips the local populace into a froth of racial hatred during a speech on the town hall's steps. With Cramer in a white linen suit spewing racist garbage to the townspeople, it's all too easy to imagine Sikeston's locals seeing him as the film's hero. Cramer supplies his own undoing, however, when he gets a little too greedy and goes after a salesman's wife and a local girl. The Intruder has none of No Way Out's bigger-budget trappings; instead, it has a grainy location-shooting patina that is more in keeping with a Corman five-day wonder. Considering Shatner's career, it may be going out on a limb to say that anything is "his sleaziest role ever," but you'd be hard-pressed to ever find him playing a character more despicable than the oily Adam Cramer. The cast is rounded out with some very familiar character actors, including screen-heavy Emhardt as Cramer's financier and Gordon as the salesman who sees through Cramer's racist bravado and recognizes him for the spineless coward that he is. According to Corman's autobiography, The Intruder was the only film of his from the period that didn't turn a profit; in fact, on its completion, no distributors wanted to handle it, deeming its subject matter too hot. It was re-released on the drive-in circuit in subsequent years as Shame, The Stranger, and under the lurid title I Hate Your Guts! The locals in Sikeston at first welcomed the production, until they got ahold of the Charles Beaumont novel that it was based on. From that moment on, relations with the townspeople were strained at best, with death threats and intimidation in the air. The crew was forced to resort to guerrilla filmmaking to complete the film and get the hell out of town before things turned even uglier. Almost 40 years later, The Intruder is still enough to make the viewer squirm as Shatner revives the town's KKK chapter and manipulates the populace into a black-baiting, Jew-hating rabble. It may not have the manners of Mankiewicz's film, but both movies force a mirror up in front of society's face and demand an unsparing look at an ugly, divisive issue.