Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the hidden hideout for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. A big welcome to everyone here tonight, whether you’re a regular or a newbie. There’s no dress code as long as you leave your camera off. We’ve reupholstered the chairs, because I know some of you were complaining about the tears in the cushions. Take a seat, make yourself at home and bring your own beverage.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
Last night I asked you what you thought about banning defensive shifts. By a vote of 56 percent to 44 percent, you thought taking some action to limit defensive shifts was a good idea. Twenty-three percent of you thought that teams should have to have two infielders on each side of second base and thirty percent of you felt that they should do that and have to be positioned on the infield dirt or infield grass.
Here’s the part where I talk about jazz and movies. You’re free to skip to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.
I thought we’d just finish up the New Orleans theme of this week with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which is a longtime New Orleans institution dedicated to keeping the spirit of old-time jazz alive. It is a band too—I don’t want anyone to think it’s a charitable foundation or anything, although they do have charitable activities.
Here’s a fundraising video that they made during the height of the pandemic of their standard “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” It features Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello, Irma Thomas, Nathaniel Rateliff and others. I figure those people have enough fans around here that more people might just click on the link out of curiosity.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film No Way Out is a sledgehammer of a movie. Best remembered today as Sidney Poitier’s film debut, No Way Out is a searing indictment of racism at a time in American history when that was still controversial. (Maybe it still is.) But underneath the film’s raw portrait of the ugliness of racism, the film still manages to make some subtle points about the ways that even well-meaning white people can make things worse. No Way Out definitely stumbles a few times, as we all do when speaking about race, but many of the overall messages of No Way Out still ring true today. But beyond the message, it also remains a tight film noir that is entertaining as just a crime drama as well.
Mankiewicz was on a roll in 1950. He had just had a huge hit with A Letter to Three Wives and was about to have another one with All About Eve. He came across a script by Lester Samuels, who wrote a story based on his son-in-law’s experience training young Black medical students. Samuels was struck by how these highly-educated young Black men were trapped in a world where racism and segregation kept them from ever reaching their potential. To Samuels, these men seemed trapped between the white and Black worlds with “no way out.”
Samuels’ story was mostly about the experience of the white mentor doctor fighting for the interns and not the Black doctors themselves. Mankiewicz had no intention of telling that story. Instead, he re-wrote the script into a blistering message film noir in the same vein as Crossfire, the 1947 film that took on anti-semitism. In Mankiewicz’s telling, the Black doctor was at the center of the film and the white mentor was pushed to the periphery. (Although Stephen McNally, the actor playing the white doctor, did get higher billing. More on that later.)
Mankiewicz picked 23-year-old stage actor Sidney Poitier for the lead of Dr. Luther Brooks. Dr. Brooks is the first of many times that Poitier would play a “model negro,” or a Black man of such uncommon intelligence, respectability and goodness that only the worst racist could possibly deny the man deserved a place in the wider, mostly-white society. Certainly many since that time have criticized those characters (although not Poitier) by implying that minorities need to be perfect to enjoy the rights that society grants to others, but white America wasn’t ready in 1950 to hear that argument.
To keep this piece somewhat baseball-related, Poitier has often been compared to Jackie Robinson for his role in opening up Hollywood for Black actors to play more than maids and railway porters. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Mankiewicz had Jackie Robinson in mind when he wrote the character of Dr. Brooks. Poitier plays Dr. Brooks with an impressive dignity in the face of some pretty vicious racist insults. Like Robinson in his first season in Brooklyn, Dr. Brooks knows that he has to just take it. He has to have the courage to not fight back, as Branch Rickey had put it. But while Poitier keeps Dr. Brooks under control at all times, he always gets across to the audience that there is a simmering fury underneath that professionalism. Being called the n-word is a big deal to Dr. Brooks. He just knows that doing anything about it would just prove the bigots right. Poitier always manages to make it clear that the racism is tearing him up on the inside.
Poitier’s performance was so good that it posed problems for his co-star, Richard Widmark, who plays the vile racist criminal Ray Biddle. Mankiewicz wanted to see method acting (which was new and trendy in 1950) out of his actors and encouraged them to react as they would to the situations as if it were real life. This wasn’t a problem for Poitier, who had faced enough racism in his life that he could easily tap into those feelings on the set. But not only was Widmark not a racist, he and Poitier started a lifelong friendship during the filming of No Way Out. So when he would say something truly awful to Poitier, he would sense Poitier’s reaction and instead of taking glee in it as his character would, his natural instinct was to feel empathy and disgust at his own actions. It is to Richard Widmark’s credit as a person that he does not turn in his finest performance in No Way Out. He’s okay, but his character is more a symbol of racism than a human being.
In fact, Ray Biddle is a pretty disgusting cartoon character of a racist. We first see him being brought into the hospital on a stretcher after being shot in the leg. Upon seeing Dr. Brooks (whom he mistakes for an orderly or a janitor), he spits on the floor and tells Luther to clean it up. He hurls at Dr. Brooks every insult he can think of (including the n-word several times) at every opportunity. He organizes a race riot. There’s no inner dialog there on Ray. He’s just an awful, unredeemable racist, and a career petty criminal to boot.
Ray does make a speech near the end of the film about the plight of the poor white man, as if that explains his racism. He ask how is everyone concerned about the Black man, but why isn’t anyone concerned about him? (Sound familiar?) That’s certainly Mankiewicz tying white racism to poverty, but it also is a broadside on white entitlement. Dr. Brooks went to college at nights and worked days to put himself through medical school. He willingly took a job at a county hospital where he tends to inmates at the local jail. Ray is a career criminal who robs gas stations at gunpoint for a living. Yet Ray still thinks society needs to worry about his welfare more than that of Dr. Brooks.
Standing between the two poles of Dr. Brooks and Ray Biddle are two more white characters, Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally) and Edie Johnston (Linda Darnell). Edie is the ex-lover and ex-sister-in-law of Ray Biddle. She’s a racist too, but of the more casual variety. She’s simply a poor white woman who goes along with the racist beliefs of the community she grew up in. She has an inner conscience that allows her to overcome her racism, although the way the film shows that conversion (Dr. Wharton’s black maid shows her kindness) is pretty clumsy. Still, the film isn’t about Edie and her road to Damascus needed to be shown in a shorthand that white audiences could quickly pick up on.
It was good to see Linda Darnell get a chance to play something other than a pretty face in No Way Out, although it must be said that she looks fabulous with her leather coat draped over her shoulders like a cape in this film. Darnell is strong here in her transformation from an unsympathetic character to a hero at the end, but again, the whole thing comes across as too neat. That’s not Darnell’s fault, who does a good job with the material given.
The character of Dr. Wharton is one that I think I misread on first viewing and I suspect most white audiences of 1950 would have misread it as well. Dr. Wharton serves as a mentor to Dr. Brooks and he’s kindly and supportive. Dr. Brooks appreciates what Dr. Wharton has done for him and when he thanks him for sticking his neck out for a Black doctor, Dr. Wharton immediately pulls the whole “I don’t see color” act. He insists his concern for Dr. Brooks is no different that it would be for any other promising young physician.
Later, when Dr. Wharton confronts his superior, Moreland, at the hospital about backing up Dr. Brooks in his dispute with Ray, the hospital administrator demurs out of political considerations. But Moreland takes offense to the implication that he won’t back a Black doctor and he replies that “I’m not anti-negro. I’m pro-negro! I hope we have two more negro doctors here next year.”
Dr. Wharton’s response to his boss is to say that he’s not “pro-negro” at all. He’s pro-good doctor no matter what color they are.
Originally, I thought that the film was positioning Dr. Wharton as the wise mentor whose belief in a non-racial meritocracy was the goal of that everyone should strive for. But the more I think about it, I think that Mankiewicz really was positioning him as the clueless rich white liberal that he comes off as today. To be sure, Dr. Wharton is a good man and an ally of Dr. Brooks. But Dr. Wharton keeps trying to tell Dr. Brooks that race shouldn’t matter and that all that should matter is that Dr. Brooks is an excellent doctor. Dr. Brooks keeps trying to tell him that in the real world, the fact that he’s Black does matter.
That message never gets through to Dr. Wharton. When Dr. Brooks is proven correct in his dispute with Ray, Dr. Wharton thinks the entire matter is done and goes fishing, leaving Dr. Brooks by himself to deal with the blowback. (Lucky for him that Edie has switched sides by this point.)
I’m truly not sure that white audiences of 1950 would have picked up on Dr. Wharton as being a problem in this movie, even though he’s a good guy. I bet that Black audiences who watched it would have.
There is also the rather simplistic message in the film that racism is a product of segregation and not the other way around. The poor white people in this film blame their problems on the Black community because they have no contact with them. They don’t see them as human beings because they’ve never met them. The richer, more-educated white people are not racist (although sometimes clueless) because they do come in contact with Black people every day. But the Black people that the rich white people have come to know and love are their servants, for the most part. Again, that’s not a good look by today’s standards, and the whole idea that education and money is a defense against racism has been disproven time and again. But maybe it was all that wider audiences would accept in 1950.
The racial problems with No Way Out were not limited to the screen. There are several prominent Black roles in this film, including Ossie Davis in an uncredited role for his film debut and his wife, Ruby Dee, is also in the film uncredited. Both play relatives of Luther. But the crew was all-white, as was standard on the Hollywood studio sets of the time. The crew would loudly complain about having to work with Black actors. The lighting, costume and make-up departments did not understand that working with black skin was different than working with white skin and they had no interest in learning the difference. The Black extras were paid less than the white extras until the Black extras staged a protest and shut down the set. Which is kind of ironic, since most of the Black extras are there to participate in a riot.
Although Poitier was clearly the star of this film, he receives fourth billing behind Widmark, Darnell and McNally. Some of that can be attributed to him making his film debut, but for his name to show up with tiny letters at the bottom after a “with” on the film posters is remarkable. For a white actor, they certainly would have added “And introducing Sidney Poitier” in large type. Sure, Widmark and Darnell were big stars and McNally was a well-known character actor, but it still says something about how unsure 20th Century Fox was about how No Way Out would be received with a Black leading man.
No Way Out was naturally banned throughout the South. But even many places in the North banned it as well, including Chicago, fearing it would lead to race riots. (If anyone remembers the hysteria surrounding Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing, it was like that.) An NAACP protest got the board to reverse its decision and allow the film to be shown in Chicago, but only after certain scenes were cut. But other Northern states and cities never did permit its showing.
Obviously with its limited distribution, No Way Out was not a hit, but it did garner many positive reviews. Poitier’s performance was universally singled out for praise by the critics who did see it.
Poitier’s performance in this film was so great that Hollywood couldn’t just typecast him in normal “Black” roles afterwards. This film lead to him being cast in Cry, The Beloved Country (admittedly a British film) and eventually in his big breakout role in Blackboard Jungle. It was the start of a remarkable career and the big break in a remarkable life that only ended earlier this year.
I may say some more about No Way Out next week. But even though they are some aspects of the film that have not aged as well as others, it still remains a powder keg of a film with a message that unfortunately is still pretty timely.
Here’s the trailer for No Way Out. Normally I prefer to present a scene rather than a trailer, but as you can tell from this write-up, most of the scenes have offensive, racist language in them that I wouldn’t want to share here. So that is a warning to those who decide to watch it. But it’s certainly worth watching as a terrific “message” noir.
It is worth noticing that the trailer emphasizes Widmark and Darnell and not Poitier.
Welcome back to those who skip the jazz and movies.
Tonight’s question is one I’ve asked before and I hope I don’t have to ask again. But in light of the cancellation of the first week of the season, I think it’s time to ask again when you think the lockout is going to end.
So it’s as simple as that. When will the lockout end? I’m not asking when the season will start, but when the players and owners will reach a collective bargaining agreement and the players will report to Spring (or Summer) Training.
When will the lockout end?
This poll is closed
Sometime in March
Oh crap. Later than that.
Thank you again for stopping by. We hope you had a pleasant evening. Be sure to get home safely and tip generously. And also come back again next week for another edition of BCB After Dark.