Saturday, December 6, 2008

Introducing Sidney Poitier

TCM are showing Sidney Poitier's movie début, No Way Out, at 6:00 PM ET tonight. It's a movie that was groundbreaking in its time, and is still fascinating today.

Poitier plays Dr. Luther Brooks, a young resident in the prison ward of the County Hospital. One night, the Biddle brothers are brought in, having been shot during the robbery of a gas station. Dr. Brooks examines them, and determines that one of the brothers has a more serious problem than simply having been shot in the leg -- the young man probably has a brain tumor. Dr. Brooks begins to do the necessary tests, but while performing the tests, the man dies. Unfortunately for Dr. Brooks, the surviving Biddle brother (played by Richard Widmark) is virulently racist, and thinks the black Dr. Brooks has deliberately killd his brother -- and dammit, Dr. Brooks is going to pay for it!

Dr. Brooks tries to prove his innocence, but it's not an easy task. The simplest way to do it would be to perform an autopsy on the dead man, which would reveal whether or not the deceased actually had a brain tumor, but the survivors aren't about to permit this. In the meantime, word has spread amongst the local black population that their black doctor is being given the shaft by The Man, which leads to an entirely different set of problems....

No Way Out is an extremely interesting movie, and one that raises thought-provoking questions to this day. The characters are, for the most part, given believable motivations. Poitier's Dr. Brooks is clearly the hero here, but he's not a pure man, having the natural doubts: what if he were wrong?, he thinks. His immediate boss wants to take his side, but has the understandble problem of trying to maintain funding for the hospital. Despite what this may say about the state of race relations (and the hospital administrators have some of the most badly-dated lines of the movie in that regard), it should be kept in mind that if a similar situation happened today, regardless of the races of the doctor and patient, hospital administrators would have the same thought. The black characters other than Poitier are divided, as well, reflecting the real life difference between the gradualism (of, say, the Booker T. Washington types of the early 1900s, who thought that blacks could advance their situation most effectively by being clean, hard-working, high-achieving types), and the more radical W.E.B. DuBois types who would have felt a more vocal protest necessary. Is this the hill you want to die on? It's not a comfortable question to have to answer. Perhaps the most interesting dilemma is that shown by Linda Darnell, who plays the wife of the deceased. She was clearly born on the wrong side of the tracks, where a bigoted attitude towards blacks was the order of the day, and which has clearly infused all the whites of her social class. As a result, her first thought is what might be in it for her. This leads her to be against the autopsy at first. But, as the surviving Biddle brothers don't treat her well, she begins to be willing to side with those rich people. Interestingly, however, the movie doesn't particuarly look kindly on "those rich people" either, giving them the bad lines about trying to advance race relations. That's one of the things that makes the movie so fascinating.

Everybody is quite good here, especially the three leads. Life is not as clear-cut as it's generally portrayed in the movies, and Poitier and Darnell both do an outstanding job of portraying life's ambiguities. Widmark's character is more one-dimensional, but even his anger at the death of his brother is understandable. People back in 1950 -- especially the less educated -- wouldn't understand why a doctor was checking a gunshot victim for a brain tumor, and when that patient dies, it's not unnatural to think there was something untoward going on on the doctor's part. Still, Widmark's Ray Biddle is portrayed as an unrelenting racist, which is a bit of a shame. Watch also for Ossie Davie and Ruby Dee as Poitier's brother and sister-in-law.

Thankfully, this excellent movie is available on DVD, should you miss TCM's showing. No Way Out was released by Twentieth-Century Fox, which means that it doesn't show up on TCM very often.

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