When a petty criminal dies under the care of African-American doctor Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier), the criminal's unstable, bigoted brother, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), accuses the medical resident of deliberate murder. In the earlier part of his career, Widmark brought sneering sadists to life with pungency, and Biddle represents human intolerance at its nadir. Throughout No Way Out, Ray hurls epithets at Luther, and it's especially shocking to hear such words on a soundstage set from the studio era.
No Way Out builds to a nightmarish riot scene but succumbs to a little racial relativism. Ray stirs up poor, resentful whites, but "white-hating" African-Americans pre-emptively strike first to protect their homes. When Luther accuses black friend Lefty (Dots Johnson) of being no better than the bigots, Lefty replies, "Ain't that askin' a lot for us to be better than they are, when we get killed trying to prove we're as good?" In his screen debut, Poitier conveys Luther's ambition and anguish without approaching the overt indignation of his future "Mr. Tibbs" performances. It's as if he couldn't be allowed to be too threatening.
Not to be confused with the Kevin Costner thriller of the same name, No Way Out provides an amusing reminder that modern-day movie marketing can't hold a candle to the self-important hyperbole of "Golden Age" studios. The DVD includes a theatrical trailer, which strings together vague, significant-sounding boilerplate that borders on gibberish. Floating words blare, "Entertainment That Challenges Your Own Ability to Experience the Emotions of Others." You can imagine superficially slicker but equally empty sentiments expressed over contemporary movies such as Crash. Today's political films will be lucky to retain the force of No Way Out a half-century later.