Crash Course

Sidney Poitier's pedantic first film tackles race and class.

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Out patient: Poitier made his big-screen debut in 1950 at age 22.

No Way Out
Includes: Commentary track, stills gallery and more.
You'll Like It If You Like: Medical melodramas, Sidney Poitier, dramas of African-American life, entertaining commentary tracks.

The Crash of 1950, No Way Out is one of those heavy-handed message movies that piles race on top of class on top of melodrama. It's the first movie starring Sidney Poitier, who was 22 at the time. Poitier went on to be the icon of African-American movie identity in the '60s with movies like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night and Lilies of the Field (for which he won an Oscar in 1963).

It's also the movie the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed between A Letter to Three Wives (for which he also won Oscars for both writing and direction the year before) and his classic All About Eve (for which he won Oscars for both writing and directing-a four-peat no one has ever matched).

As those Oscars suggest, Mankiewicz was a whiz at urbane, sophisticated dialogue. So he's pretty out of his element here. The script is an ER or Grey's Anatomy kind of story about a black doctor accused of killing a mobster under his care. The mobster's racist brother makes charges that lead to a race riot and lots of hand-wringing before things get straightened out in the end.

The hokey story typifies what film historian Eddie Muller, in the commentary track, calls producer Darryl F. Zanuck's "liberal do-gooder pictures"-filled with more noble intentions than dramatic finesse. For better or worse, it's a fascinating artifact of the 1950s, portraying a black family so saintly and put-upon that no one could question their propriety, even when dignified old Mama endorses a race riot.

Poitier works himself up into a lot of righteous rage, but the movie's real center of gravity is Richard Widmark as the creepy racist. Three years after his unforgettably psychotic gangster in Kiss of Death, Widmark does a quieter, slyer turn here, maybe because he'd hoped to move on to romantic leads (or because, as Muller reports, he was so embarrassed by his racist dialogue that he kept apologizing to Poitier off-screen).

It's hard to bring subtlety to lines like, "I'll get you for this, you black rat!" But Widmark creates a hateful character defined not simply by racism but by gleeful contempt for all. It's like a game to him-bringing everyone down to his own level of malice, proving they're all as vile as he is.

Ray's favorite target is his ex-sister-in-law Edie, played by noir icon Linda Darnell as a weak woman desperate to break out of her miserable Beaver Canal neighborhood, but too unsure of herself to figure out which side to be on. Manipulated by cagey Ray, she shifts allegiances back and forth, staging a psychodrama within a psychodrama in which she seems like both the good girl and the bad girl of traditional film noirs.

Torn between loyalties, Edie embodies the movie's social themes, in which class and race are destined to collide in very bad ways. Of course the black family (including the very young Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) is so wholesome that the deck's stacked from the start.

A box office failure despite its good intentions, No Way Out remains a gripping but dated melodrama, most compelling for where it fits into film and social history than for its overheated narrative. It's actually a better experience on DVD, since you get an entertaining commentary track from the insanely informative Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation.

No Way Out isn't really a film noir, but the jovial Muller offers so much insight and information that you're happy to have him along. Among other things, he tells us that Poitier showed this film to his parents back in Nassau. It was the first movie they'd ever seen. "Don't hit my boy!" his mother called out at the screen.

Werckmeister Harmonies

Tarr baby: The Hungarian filmmaker's stark compositions look stunning on DVD.
Putting the "art" in "art movie," Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr produces images as stunning as anything ever put on film. In fact, his stark black-and-white compositions look even better in DVD's startling clarity than they ever did through a dusty film projector.

Tarr's arrangements of light, depth and shadow make the movie worth seeing based on aesthetics alone. Yet beyond the striking tableaux, it's heavy sledding-as if someone had hired Ansel Adams to shoot a baffling Marguerite Duras film.

The story follows a young man in a small Hungarian town who's fascinated by a large dead whale displayed in the center of town. "Just see what a gigantic animal the Lord can create!" he enthuses. "How mysterious is the Lord of the world that he amuses himself in such strange creatures."

Tarr's movies are filled with strange creatures. There's the dignified, scholarly musician with strong ideas about those harmonies of the title; the domineering woman he was once involved with (played by Fassbinder veteran Hanna Schygulla); and a mysterious "prince" who's something between a freak-show attraction and a Wizard of Oz-style despot.

This description makes the movie sound much more straightforward than it plays. The story remains mysterious and unclear right up to the diffident ending. It seems to be a vague political allegory (though Tarr disputes that reading), but without much to say that we haven't already heard in more trenchant movies.

Is the movie opaque and elusive because Tarr has so much to say, or so little? It's besides the point, since his unique style isn't about "saying" something. It's about creating an experience, similar to a piece of music or a sculpture. The effect is almost spiritual, or theological.

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