Friday, February 16, 2024

No Way Out (1950)

Upon its release, No Way Out (1950) was a revolutionary film in many ways. It starred a Black actor, Sidney Poitier, as a medical doctor, this at a time when Black professionals were rarely seen in American movies. It featured an unrelenting portrayal of racism in the form of the character Ray Biddle (played by Richard Widmark). It was also a forerunner of the wave of progressive films of the Fifties, such as The Ring (1952), Salt of the Earth (1954), and The Defiant Ones (1958). Indeed, No Way Out (1950) would even prove controversial upon its initial release.

No Way Out centred on Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier), the first African American doctor at a big city hospital. Dr. Brooks's job becomes all the more difficult when two brothers, Ray and Johnny Biddle (Richard Widmark and Dick Paxton) are brought to the hospital for gunshot wounds following an attempted robbery. When Johnny dies, Ray blames Dr. Brooks for his brother's death. To make matters worse, Ray is virulently racist.

No Way Out originated with an original story by screenwriter Lesser Samuels. According to a July 30 1950 New York Times article, Mr. Samuels had wanted to address the "cancerous results of hatred." He had not originally planned to write about a Black doctor until he learned about the struggles faced by African American physicians from colleagues of his daughter's fiancé, who was a doctor himself. Lesser Samuels's original story would attract the interest of 20th Century Fox, although the studio's public relations counsel Jason Joy expressed concern over "the violence which this story contains and the fear that might be raised in some quarters that it might touch off violence in their sections of the country." Despite Jason Joy's concerns, 20th Century Fox bought Lesser Samuels's story in January 1949.

After being purchased by 20th Century Fox, screenwriter Philip Yordan made various recommendations, many of which would make their way into the completed movie. Among these was taking the audience into the home of Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier), stating in a memo, "We will see real Negroes and how they live, as human beings. He will have a real brother, a real sister, a real father and mother--all human beings." The script of No Way Out as of February 1949 would have had Luther being killed. While Darryl F. Zanuck originally liked this ending, by April 1949 he had changed his mind, saying in a memo that the ending as it was left him with a "...feeling of utter futility. Luther, a wonderful character, is hideously slaughtered. If his death resulted in something, if something were accomplished either characterwise or otherwise, it would be different and I would accept it."

Darryl F. Zanuck assigned the now legendary director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, fresh from an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives (1949), to direct No Way Out. Mr. Mankiewicz would reshape the script and by June 1949 he had a preliminary script that Darryl F. Zanuck approved in August 1949.

For the all-important role of Luther Brooks, casting director William Gordon auditioned over one hundred actors from Hollywood, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and New York City. Sidney Poitier learned of the screen tests for Dr. Brooks from fellow actor, Thompson Brown. Mr. Poitier was already committed to a lead role in the Broadway production Lost in the Stars (which was a musical adaptation of Cry the Beloved Country), but he did a screen test for No Way Out anyway, reasoning that he would be establishing contacts. Only 22 years old at the time, Sidney Poitier lied about his age as a 22 year-old would be too young to play a doctor.

As it turned out, Joseph L. Mankiewicz narrowed the field down to six actors, Sidney Poitier among them. It was not just Joseph L. Mankiewicz who had been impressed by Sidney Poitier's screen test, but Darryl F. Zanuck as well. He had to return to 20th Century Fox to shoot a longer screen test, and he was also interviewed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Ultimately, Mr. Mankiewicz offered Sidney Poitier the role of Luther Books, which the actor promptly turned down as he was already committed to Lost in the Stars.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz was determined that Sidney Poitier would play Luther, and as a result he offered Sidney Poitier ten times the pay that he would receive on Broadway in Lost in the Stars. Ultimately, Sidney Poitier's agent and Joseph L. Mankiewicz were able to get Mr. Poitier out of Lost in the Stars. Cast opposite Sidney Poitier was Richard Widmark as racist Ray Biddle. Mr. Widmark was well-known for his villainous roles in such films as Kiss of Death (1947), The Street with No Name (1948), and Road House (1948). As it turned out, Richard Widmark was as far removed from the villainous characters he played as could be. Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark soon became friends, and Mr. Poitier later wrote in his autobiography, This Life, "The reality of Widmark was a thousand miles from the characters he played. That shy, gentle, very private person helped me learn the ropes of filmmaking and was among the first in Hollywood, along with his lovely wife Jean, to open his home to me socially." Richard Widmark had so much respect for Sidney Poitier that after every scene in which Ray Biddle abused Dr. Luther Brooks, he apologized to Mr. Poitier.

No Way Out not only provided Sidney Poitier with his first major role, but it also marked the film debut of Ossie Davis, who played the uncredited role of John Brooks. It would also mark the first time that Ossie Davis appeared on screen alongside his wife, Ruby Dee, who played the uncredited role of Connie Brooks. Ruby Dee had already appeared in prominent roles in such films as The Fight Never Ends (1948) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). The film also featured Linda Darnell as Edie, Johnny Biddle's widow, and Stephen McNally as the chief resident and Dr. Brooks's mentor Dr. Dan Wharton.

As mentioned earlier, No Way Out proved controversial upon its initial release. The National Legion of Decency gave No Way Out a "C" rating, indicating they thought the film was morally objectionable. Captain Harry Fullmer of the Chicago Police Department held up a permit for exhibiting the movie and even recommended to Police Commissioner John Prendegast that No Way Out be banned. As a result, Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, sent a telegram to then Chicago Mayor Martin D. Kennelly, objecting to No Way Out possibly being banned in Chicago. Despite this, Commissioner Prendegast went ahead with the ban. Mayor Kennelly lifted the ban after the film was screened by a special committee of the Cook County Crime Prevention Bureau, who suggested to the mayor that the band be lifted. Mayor Kennelly lifted the ban on No Way Out after three to four minutes of the film were cut.

Chicago would not be the only place that would prove troublesome for No Way Out. The movie would be only shown with cuts in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In Massachusetts there was a ban on No Way Out being exhibited on Sunday. As to the South, 20th Century Fox did not even bother to release No Way Out in much of the region. The censorship of No Way Out did not go unanswered, as the NAACP protested the various cuts to the film and outright bans.

No Way Out would receive mixed reviews upon its release. It received a positive review in the Motion Picture Herald, in which it was noted, "The screen has tackled the problem of race prejudice in various ways ever since Hollywood acquired a social conscience, but rarely has it come to grips with the whole tragic question quite so dramatically and forcefully as in this picture." Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times wrote in his review, "Although its aim is not always as good as its intentions, No Way Out is a harsh, outspoken picture with implications that will keep you thinking about it long after leaving the theatre. That makes No Way Out an important picture." The review in Daily Variety was largely negative, referring to it as "tedious with words." Fortnight claimed in their review that No Way Out had a  "...lack of genuine feeling and insight into the motives of the very people it pretends to champion."

No Way Out is not a perfect film. To a large degree Dr. Luther Brooks is an early example of the stereotype known as the "ebony saint," a dignified, but  non-threatening and non-sexual Black man. In his book Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, film historian Donald Bogle described Dr. Luther Brooks as "the perfect dream for white liberals to have [over] for lunch or dinner." Dr. Wharton's maid Gladys (played by Amanda Randolph) seems a bit reminiscent of the Mammy stereotype, even expressing the thought that she enjoys caring for Dr.. Wharton. As Donald Bogle notes in Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers, "As the faithful servant to a liberal white doctor, Amanda Randolph was comforting and motherly, ever ready with a smile and nurturing warm advice for the white characters around her."

That having been said, in other ways No Way Out was very progressive for its time. Indeed, the very fact that it features a Black doctor in a major role made it revolutionary. In his book Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers by Donald Bogle, Mr. Bogle wrote, "Poitier's character, Luther, represents the voice of reason. For later generations, Poitier's character in No Way Out (and other films) might appear too noble and idealized. But for moviegoers at the time he appeared to be the model actor just as the civil rights movement was about to take off.". No Way Out was also innovative in its portrayal of racial violence. If not the first movies to portray racial unrest, it was certainly one of the earliest. Indeed, it was because of the race riot in the film that No Way Out proved controversial in much of the country.

No Way Out may not be a perfect film, but it is certainly a groundbreaking one. And it is certainly a powerful film as well. It is a movie that was unapologetic in its portrayal of the difficulties faced by Black doctors, and in its portrayal of race relations in the United States in the late Forties and early Fifties.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Happy Valentine's Day 2024

Here at A Shroud of Thoughts we realize many prefer cheesecake to chocolates and flowers, so, without further ado, here are this year's vintage pinups.

First up is Leslie Caron, who wants to be your Valentine.

I think many would prefer a box with Cyd Charisse to a box of chocolates...

Barbara Bates is enjoying her swing on Valentine's Day.

Marie McDonald wants you to be her Valentine...and to buy War Bonds.

And here's Rita Hayworth with a big box of chocolates.

And it wouldn't be Valentine's Day without Ann Miller

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 12, 2024

The 30th Anniversary of State of Emergency (1994)

It was thirty years ago today that the television movie State of Emergency (1994) debuted on HBO. State of Emergency was one of a number of remarkable tele-films put out by HBO in the Nineties that also included Citizen Cohn (1992), The Tuskegee Airman (1995), and Truman (1995). While State of Emergency may not be as well remembered as some of these other films, there is every reason it should be. For myself, it is significant as the last television movie my dearest Vanessa Marquez made before beginning her stint as Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER.

State of Emergency (1994) is set in the emergency room of an inner city hospital that is both under-staffed and under-funded. Indeed, among other things, their CAT scan is not functioning. After a victim of an auto accident is brought to the hospital, Dr. John Novelli (Joe Mantegna) finds himself in a difficult situation that could affect both his career and the hospital. In addition to Joe Mantegna and Vanessa Marquez, the cast included Lynn Whitfield (known for The Josephine Baker Story), Melinda Dillon (Ralphie's mom in A Christmas Story) and Richard Beymer (known for West Side Story and Twin Peaks).

State of Emergency (1994) was written by Dr. Lance Gentile and Susan Black. Susan Black had written an episode of A Year in the Life. She served as an associate producer on State of Emergency. Dr. Gentile would later serve as a medical consultant on ER and a consulting producer on both Providence and Third Watch. Lance Gentile also served as an associate producer on State of Emergency.

Dr. Gentile was an 18 year emergency room veteran and he drew upon some of his own experiences in co-writing the teleplay. In an newspaper article published on February 8 1994 in The Indiana Gazette, Dr. Gentile said he wanted to dramatize the health care crisis. He also wanted to demonstrate the effect the health care system has on health care workers. In the article he said, "There is a high emotional toll because the nature of your business is people suffering and dying. It's unrelenting. If you let it touch you, it eats away at you." HBO was responsible for making the television movie darker than it might otherwise have been. They suggested to Lance Gentile and Susan Black that they cut a romance in the film that softened the film.

State of Emergency was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter. She had already directed episodes of Amazing Stories and Twin Peaks, among several other shows. She would go onto direct episodes of The West Wing and Mad Men (for which she was nominated for an Emmy for the episode "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency").

Vanessa Marquez as Violetta in State of Emergency (1994)
Vanessa Marquez as Violetta

Vanessa Marquez played the emergency room's radiologist, Violetta, in the movie. It was a significant role for her, as up to that point she had primarily played juvenile roles, even as she approached her mid-twenties. State of Emergency gave Vanessa a chance not only to play an adult for a change, but an intelligent young woman who was in a position of responsibility as well. Vanessa enjoyed her time on the set of State of Emergency, as her fellow cast-mates were all very nice. Vanessa was a huge fan of West Side Story (1961), so she was initially intimidated at playing alongside Tony himself, Richard Beymer. Richard Beymer sensed this and soon put her at ease, and even helped her with her acting. He was one of her most fondly remembered cast mates in any movie or TV show.

State of Emergency received largely positive reviews. Drew Voros in Variety wrote of the film, "Based on the experiences of an emergency room doctor, 'State of Emergency' dips into fiction for the needed dramatic elements, but the producers, writers and director Lesli Linka Glatter have assembled a no-holds-barred medical drama that smacks of real life." State of Emergency would also be recognized by various awards. It received several nominations at the CableACE awards, including the awards for Make-Up, Movie or Mini-Series, and Supporting Actress for Melinda Dillon. It was also nominated for the Humanitas Award and its teleplay won the PEN Center USA West Literary award.

State of Emergency benefits from a tight script that shows no mercy in its portrayal of the shortcomings of the American healthcare system in the Nineties. There is nothing that is superfluous in the film, so that every scene counts. It also benefits from some fine performances, including Joe Mantenga as Dr. Novelli, Lynn Whitfield as his loyal assistant Dehlia, Richard Beymer as the sardonic Dr. Frames, and Deborah Kara Unger as stressed out nurse Sue Payton.

Currently State of Emergency is unavailable on streaming, although it is available on DVD.

Ultimately, State of Emergency is a grim drama that can be unrelenting. It is certainly not a film to watch if one wants to escape the worries of their day, but it is a movie to watch if one want something thought-provoking. Indeed, while State of Emergency was made thirty years ago, it still seems as timely and relevant today.