A Nice, Clean Girl in a Nice, Clean World

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The line “A nice, clean girl” &c is sneered — SNEERED! — by Richard Widmark at Linda Darnell in Joe Monkeybitch’s electrifying thriller / issues film NO WAY OUT. It’s a movie whose liberal good intentions are easy to mock, but which are played out mainly in exciting noir situations. Widmark’s racist is suitably pathetic, stupid and inadequate, but still a convincing threat by virtue of sheer vicious malevolence and the actor’s magnetism. It’s fashionable to say that Sidney Poitier, here in his first lead role (even if he’s billed fourth, AFTER the main title and in a clump of supporting schmoes) was cast in boring, squeaky clean parts for much of his career, but he’s no more virtuous than the average leading man of 1950. Perhaps a little too noble by Mankiewicz’s high standards, BUT —

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Widmark isn’t the only one who can sneer.

You also get Ossie Morris Davis and his sexy wife Ruby Dee and Mildred Joanne Smith and Dots Johnson and Amanda Randolph and Maude Simmons too — most of them uncredited, to be sure — I think whoever decided credits at Fox was not as progressive as the director — and because Mankiewicz and co-scribe Lesser Samuels (ACE IN THE HOLE) are good writers, they play a variety of interesting people. I don’t think it’s purely a desire to be progressive, I think it’s just the good writer’s desire to avoid boring stereotypes and give the audience an interesting experience with some interesting characters. Amanda Randolph pops up as a housekeeper and nearly walks of with the film.

Also interesting is Harry Bellaver as Widmark’s deaf-mute brother. The treatment of disability is not as progressive as the treatment of race, with Bellaver treated as a stooge by all and sundry — when the doctors want family permission to perform an autopsy on the third Biddle brother, nobody even considers asking him. One wishes he had a bit more independence as a character but I guess he’s relied on Widmark all his life. It’s kind of interesting to see a deaf racist in a film — we even get the sign-language equivalent of all the racist terms used so freely by Widmark’s venomous bigot — Bellaver presses his nose flat with one hand. An ironic sign, since Bellaver already has a squashed-flat neb that looks like the impact site of a putty meteor.

Darnell has one of the best roles she ever got — Mankiewicz gave her the very best in LETTER TO THREE WIVES — where she gets a tremendous range of stuff to do and a journey from slovenly tramp to well-meaning tart with a heart to racist stooge to class victim to heroine. Stephen McNally, billed ahead of Poitier, has the genuinely boring role as the nice head doctor, and the screenplay sensibly sidelines him as early as possible and omits him from the climax entirely. See The Knick for a stronger solution to the role of the head doctor dealing with his first black M.D. — boldly, the series puts the hero in the wrong.

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7 Responses to “A Nice, Clean Girl in a Nice, Clean World”

  1. Along with Intruder in the Dust, No Way Out is one of the few Hollywood films to GENUINELY deal with racism. All three leads are amazing, and the race riot scene is terrifying.

  2. Widmark’s great virtue as an actor was the way he teetered on a knife-edge. As a bad guy he’s magnetic, as you say, and as a good guy he seems to understand and be tempted by the attractions of evil.

  3. Ossie Davis?

  4. I always get my Ossies mixed up. Ridiculous as O. Morris was an English cameraman. I worship both, so I really need some kind of mnemonic to sort myself out.

    The Mankiewicz-Widmark collab really spells out the neurosis at the heart of racism. Widmark’s character is suffering terrificcognitive dissonance in the face of this supposedly inferior being who is a qualified doctor, while he, the superior white man is failing to scrape by as an inept stick-up artist. Does not compute!

  5. Actually it does. For white racists, whiteness trumps everything.

  6. I meant it doesn’t compute to Widmark’s character, who is getting this blinding headache all the time trying to figure out why Poitier is doing better than him. Violence is the only way for him to avoid thinking about it.

  7. F here – This film is absolutely superb. One of the few Hollywood movies to deal with race head on. It’s quite startling to see all this unfolding in a forties (just) movie. David didn’t recognize the painfully young Ossie Davis. I had to clue him in. “I’m thinking with sand here!”

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