No Way Out (1950) / The Defiant Ones (1958)

A Sidney Poitier double-bill. What more could you ask for?

Last week saw the release of two films by Eureka!, both starring Sidney Poitier, one of cinema’s gentlemen, with an unparalleled natural charisma. The Defiant Ones (dir. Stanley Kramer) from 1958 and No Way Out (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) from 1950, very early in his career. 1967 is possibly Poitier’s most prolific year, with the release of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (also directed by Kramer), To Sir With Love and In the Heat of the Night. These two films are from much earlier and yet he was already a talent to be reckoned with.

That said, in retrospect, he and Tony Curtis are wasted in The Defiant Ones, a prestige, Oscar-winning picture with an obvious hook that nevertheless gets lost in unremarkable melodrama. It’s a powerful story; urgent, raw and, for the era, its message of racial tolerance is important and yet it pulls its punches. Poitier and Curtis play two convicts on the run following an accident while they were being transported. They are chained together, so as well as having to tackle the environment and keep ahead of the Sheriff (Theodore Bikel) and a pack of dogs, they have to learn to tolerate one another and come to terms with their deep-rooted prejudice. Curtis is acting against type with a broiling anger that commands attention and Poitier is fantastic, cutting through a simmering danger in his character with flashes of humour and a silly song he loves to annoy people with.

Frankly, outside of the two main performances, the film is more entertaining in the more casually handled moments with Sheriff Max and the other pursuers. Curtis and Poitier are great and have the harder jobs, but their rich dialogue has a tendency to drift into indulgent navel-gazing monologues while Bikel has the simpler, more fun role as the kindly Sheriff trying to keep control of the pursuit. The two guys also run into nice old Lon Chaney in a small town which makes for a fantastic sequence, but another aside with Cara Williams is just odd. There’s no denying the film’s importance and influence, but it should have been stronger. It has been remade several times in different guises, yet I’d rather see a sequel that could pick at the men’s fraught relationship further.

The main problem with the film is Stanley Kramer’s unremarkable direction. He’s given a lot to work with; a great plot, two powerhouse performances and several set-pieces, but what could have been a Wages of Fear on foot frequently loses pacing. Politically, it’s more High Noon than Rio Bravo and while there’s nothing wrong with liberalism, I can’t help thinking that Curtis had his work cut out injecting anger and threat into an escaped prisoner that should have been more dangerous than he is.

Sidney Poitier’s sparring partner in the lesser-known No Way Out is Richard Widmark in a role that carries far more of a threat. He plays one of two brothers, both injured in a shootout with police. Poitier’s newly qualified Doctor Brooks treats them both, but after making a dangerous decision, Widmark’s brother dies. Already deeply prejudiced against being treated by a black doctor, what he sees as race-fuelled murder tips him over the edge. Despite having the support of his colleagues and superiors, Brooks wants to clear his name, but only an autopsy could do it. Meanwhile, the repercussions start to spill out into the streets, disrupting the fragile tension between the whites and the blacks.

The scope of No Way Out is extraordinary. It’s Noir sensibilities give it a typical genre feel, but nevertheless, director and writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz expands the story such that it is close to To Kill a Mockingbird or On the Waterfront in a hospital. Poitier is young, but his brilliance is in no doubt. His commanding performance holds the screen in a manner that would always elevate mediocre material; arguably he didn’t quite have the opportunity to in The Defiant Ones, but the material in No Way Out is more fertile and centres on his role. His dignity in the face of relentless bullying by Widmark is vintage Poitier, even if it is only his second film. Also early in his career, Widmark is vicious and impressively so considering he spends much of his screen-time on his back. The dialogue sings, typical of Mankiewicz who is better known for the caustic All About Eve. As important is his craft in building a scene; look at the interplay between the stricken Widmark and his manipulation of widow-in-law Linda Darnell. It’s a masterclass in direction and acting. The same can be said of the scenes in the Brooks’ family home.

A savvy, sociopolitical screenplay addresses prejudice both in and out of the medical profession, plus scenes with Poitier’s and Widmark’s families expand further this complicated time for society. If you don’t know the film, the elevating scope can be surprising, especially the scale of a street battle. Up until that point, the story of alleged negligence would bear comparison with Trauma, a recent TV drama with John Sim and the script for No Way Out feels as relevant now as it must have done in 1950. That’s a sad fact, but also a testament to the timeless quality of Mankiewicz’s work.

The Defiant Ones has much to admire, not least Poitier and Curtis, thrilling action and the grand staging of the story, but its soft-peddled melodramatic liberalism and Kramer’s indifferent direction has aged the film. No Way Out feels vital and hungry by comparison. In the same manner of last year’s Get Out, another exploitative genre piece with a social conscience, the story is tied up neatly and yet, there’s the nagging feeling that when you tell it through a lens of racial tension, the consequences will play out so much longer.

It’s hard to correlate the liberal sensibilities of the filmmakers of the time with the perceived success of the Civil Rights Movement. It would be nice to think the efforts and prominence of Poitier suggested cinema played a part in progressing equality. Then again, it’s 60-70 years on and we’re still talking about it. The fact we’re still interested in strong stories fuelled by civil rights suggests there is a long way to go.

Both films look fantastic in 1080p presentations. The Defiant Ones 1.66:1 image is clean, if a little flat, but that’s as much down to the outdoors production as the transfer. No Way Out has the stronger image; an older film with a 1.37:1 ratio and a healthy grain, but benefits from more controlled studio work.


Both films look fantastic in 1080p presentations. The Defiant Ones 1.66:1 image is clean, if a little flat, but that’s as much down to the outdoors production as the transfer. No Way Out has the stronger image; an older film with a 1.37:1 ratio and a healthy grain, but benefits from more controlled studio work.


The uncompressed LPCM mono audio on both films is excellent and clear. Both films also feature English SDH subtitles.


Only a Kim Newman video essay graces The Defiant Ones. No Way Out is released on Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema series with an audio commentary, nearly two-hours of an archive documentary on Joseph L. Mankiewicz and brief newsreel footage with Linda Darnell.

Jon Meakin

Updated: Jun 26, 2018

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