Drama · Thriller

The Sidney-Poitier-as-Social-Barometer Film Theory

Sidney Poitier (standing) confronts Richard Widmark. Image: Dr Macro
Sidney Poitier (standing) confronts Richard Widmark. Image: Dr Macro

We’re working on a Sidney Poitier film theory.

We started developing this theory while watching the 1950 thriller No Way Out, in which Poitier portrays a young doctor at a busy city hospital.

As the film opens, Poitier is asked to fill a shift in the hospital prison ward, where he examines two white prisoners. The two are brothers, and are sporting gunshot wounds they received while robbing a gas station.

Although neither man has life-threatening wounds, one of them is barely conscious and has laboured breathing. Poitier decides to perform a spinal tap to diagnose his condition, which horrifies the brother (Richard Widmark).

Now, Widmark’s character hates African Americans, and he continually chides and belittles Poitier. It’s a wonder Poitier’s character can concentrate on his job with Widmark’s racial pummeling.

But. The ailing prisoner dies while Poitier is doing the procedure, and this sends Widmark into hysterics. He accuses Poitier of murder and incompetency, and says a white doctor would not have killed his brother.

Like a flash of lightning, the man’s untimely death ignites every flammable issue in the area, namely: Poitier’s inexperience, Widmark’s accusations, and the hospital’s reluctance to defend Poitier.

Yet these are nothing compared to the city’s racial tensions. Widmark’s neighbourhood is at odds with the black community; at best, everyone involved lives with an uneasy truce. It’s not a situation that can weather Widmark’s vengeance.

Now it’s up to Poitier to find a solution that will clear his name and, hopefully, put a stop to potential violence.

Sidney Poitier tells Mildred Joanne Smith not to worry. Image: Hollywood Reporter
Poitier tells Mildred Joanne Smith not to worry. Image: Hollywood Reporter

It’s not fair that Poitier should be the catalyst for a city’s mayhem, but the forceful Widmark ain’t letting such an opportunity go to waste.

Despite this antagonism, Poitier continues his work at the hospital, until the night a white woman spits in his face and tells him, “You keep your black hands off my boy.”

Poitier stands frozen in shock for a moment, before he tears off his stethoscope and marches out of the building.

Which brings us to our Sidney Poitier Theory. On paper, Poitier is not the main character in this film, but he is the one over whom the storm is centred. As long as Poitier can function under this pressure, we (the audience) feel optimistic about the outcome.

But once Poitier says Enough, then it is, and we realize we’ve been waiting for this signal ever since the film started.

Poiter and Linda Darnell tend to Widmark, again. Image: The Film Yap
Poiter and Linda Darnell tend to Widmark. Again. Image: The Film Yap

No Way Out was Poitier’s first feature film, but you’d never guess it. He has the charisma and talent of a seasoned professional.

According to TCM, Poitier never expected to land this role; he auditioned as an acting exercise. When he was cast, he found himself working with some of the best in the business, such as actress Linda Darnell, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and, of course, Richard Widmark.

During filming, Poitier and Widmark became friends. “In fact,” says the TCM overview, “the relationship was so respectful that Widmark felt compelled to apologize after each take in which he mistreated Poitier, both verbally and physically.”

No Way Out was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, as well as the Robert Meltzer Award for “Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene”.

But, like many groundbreaking films, it was controversial. It didn’t play in many theatres in the southern U.S., and TCM says it was temporarily banned in Chicago due to race riots. Additionally, HUAC labelled the film as un-American.

Even so, Poitier is mesmerizing as a barometer of social pressures in No Way Out. If you haven’t yet seen this film, you should make it a priority.

Notes:
  • Read the 1950 New York Times review HERE.
  • For a more recent review, see Christina Wehner’s analysis HERE.

No Way Out: starring Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz & Lesser Samuels. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1950, B&W, 106 mins.

This is part of the 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema.

sidney-poitier-blogathon-1

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45 thoughts on “The Sidney-Poitier-as-Social-Barometer Film Theory

  1. My knowledge of Sidney Poitier is limited to In the Heat of the Night, which is good in a way because it means I’ve got a plethora of great films and performances to enjoy in the future.
    The trivia about Richard Widmark apologising after every take brought a smile to my face. What a gentleman, I doubt we’ll ever see his like again, more’s the pity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for this excellent review! You gave this film all the justice it deserves. I watched the film the other day knowing that two participants (you and Leticia) would review it for the blogathon. It was great! I really didn’t have the impression that it was Sidney Poitier’s first film (in a good way). I also thought Ricard Widmark was excellent at the villain! And I must confess something tho: This was my first Linda Darnell’s film! :O
    Thanks again for your participation!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was just reading about this film in the Goudsouzian bio of Poitier–I must check it out. Widmark could really convince audiences he was beyond redemption. This film sounds like no exception. It makes me happy he was such a good person.
    I’m also intrigued by your theory. Have you seen ALL THE YOUNG MEN?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As always, it was a great review. I’d love to read more about how Sidney is a social barometer in other films as well. Maybe it won’t be so easy to perceive as in No Way Out, but I think the theory can be applied to other movies he did.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I didn’t see this film until fairly recently, but agree completely. I will say, that I’ve always found Poitier a commanding presence on screen, since my teens, but didn’t think much about why until I encountered him in the flesh on a busy New York street. It was in the late ’60’s (I won’t tell you how old I was, wink wink), and I walked by him as he was waiting at a corner for the light to change. As I passed, my first thought was, “That is the most gorgeous man I have ever seen,” and my second was, “He looks really familiar.” It wasn’t until a minute later that I realized who he was. By the time I turned around, he was surrounded by a group of adoring women, all thrusting pieces of paper at him for autographs. I’m sure he had someplace to be, but you never would have known it by how graciously he chatted with them, and how genuinely delighted and flattered he seemed by the attention. I still recall how electric his smile was, and how riveted I was to the sight of it, his entire presence. Even after the crowd dispersed, and he crossed the street, I remained awestruck. And I thought, no wonder the camera loves him: everything about him is magnificent, magnetic, and blazingly radiant.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. First, I love Barbara’s anecdote so much!!

    I saw “No Way Out” 7 years ago when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had a film noir series of screenings that lasted once weekly for 4 months in L.A.. Another early Poitier film that is socially conscious is “Edge of the City” (1957) co-starring John Cassavetes. They are two laborers working on the waterfront and face a corrupt union (“On the Waterfront”, “The Garment Jungle”, and “A View from the Bridge”, anyone?). Cassavetes befriends Poitier, and was praised by the NAACP for doing so. Great noir/drama to catch sometime.

    Sidebar: At the Noir City Festival (presented by the Film Noir Foundation) in 2012 in L.A., a fan made ashtrays (!) with film noir scenes in them and donate donated them to the vendors’ table, and I bought the one with the Poitier/Cassavetes image on it from “Edge of the City!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Edge of the City” is one I haven’t seen yet, but it’s on the list. John Cassavetes is always good, too, no?

      The Edge of the City/Film Noir ashtray sounds awesome! I bet it’s a real conversation starter. 🙂

      Like

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