Joseph L. Mankiewicz is one of the most successful triple-threats - producing, writing and directing - in Hollywood history. Chances are you've seen his two biggest hits as a writer-director, A Letter to Three Wives and Best Picture winner All About Eve. As a producer, he was behind such big hits from the 30s and 40s as The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year, among others. In addition, his brother Herman co-wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, the highlight of a long career going back to the silent era, and his son Tom had a notable stint as a writer-director, co-writing two Superman movies and three James Bond movies.
Mankiewicz was co-nominated, with original scenarist Lesser Samuels, for the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for No Way Out. He made it the same year, 1950, as Eve, whose screenplay was also Oscar nominated. A young black doctor has to treat two brothers, criminals, but when one of them dies under his care, the other, an unrepentant racist, accuses him of deliberately causing it to happen. The doctor must obtain permission for an autopsy in order to prove his innocence, but that only leads to further, and wider-ranging, complications.
I was really impressed with this one. This was the feature film debut of Sidney Poitier, and he is as good as you would imagine him to be, but there are a variety of roles for other black actors in this film that allow us to see different perspectives of the black experience. Dots Johnson's elevator operator represents the militant side, chafing under the oppression of white society and itching for an excuse to strike back somehow. Amanda Randolph's housekeeper, who could've easily been nothing more than a one-note background character, is given an important role to play in the third act that lets us see her as a person.
It was uncredited screenwriter Philip Yordan, however, who suggested, among other things, letting us see the family of Poitier's character, Luther. Mildred Joanne Smith plays Poitier's wife, and she gets several wonderful moments in the film. Sadly, her career was cut short by a plane crash two years after making No Way Out, according to her IMDB listing. She survived, but never made any other movies. She did, however, switch to singing. She died earlier this year. What would her acting career had been like without that plane crash...?
Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are in this movie! For Davis, it was also his feature debut, as well as the first film he and Dee would share. She plays Poitier's sister; Davis plays Dee's husband. They get to share a few lines together over a dinner table with mom Maude Simmons. Davis' character takes part in the [SPOILER] in Act Two, though it's also not clear why he does so. I would've liked just a tiny bit of clarification, since he doesn't come across as militant as Johnson's character.
Big shock: No Way Out was somewhat controversial when it was released. How so? Read this and find out. I found producer Darryl Zanuck's attitude towards this film fascinating: he already knew that southern theaters wouldn't want to show it, which would mean a significant loss of revenue, yet he greenlit it anyway. Not only that, but he changed his mind about the ending, in a manner that suggested he gave the story serious thought. He wasn't thinking in terms of capitulating to the audience in some way that would make the movie more palatable. He wanted to make money on No Way Out, no question, but he also thought hard about the film's integrity, and that's admirable.