Noir is full of strong, independent women. Many, of course, live on the wrong side of the law and lure men in to carry out their dastardly deeds. They’re tough, sexy, and doomed. Thus, in classic Hollywood cinema, the femme fatale of film noir is the most plentiful source from which to snag a character to study for Movies Silently and The Last Drive-in‘s “Anti-Damsel” Blogathon (details and roster of participants here).
But that’s too easy. If you enjoy noir, you already know all about these dames, from Barbara Stanwyck’s icy Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) to Jennifer Tilly’s treacherous Violet in (neo-)noir homage Bound (1995).
To go another route, I began with the blogathon hosts’ declaration: “We want bold, brave, smart women who made their mark in all walks of life.” The final phrase — “in all walks of life” — got me thinking about Linda Darnell’s pivotal role as Edie Johnson in No Way Out.
In terms of genre, this 1955 film is probably best described as a combination of noir drama and social problem film. In brief, No Way Out addresses race and class tensions when black hospital doctor Luther Brooks (Sydney Poitier) must treat two brothers, a pair of racist white robbery suspects. When one dies, the surviving sibling, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), accuses Dr. Brooks of murder and vows vengeance.
Linda Darnell enters the picture as Biddle’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson. Head doctor Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally) asks her to try to convince Ray to allow an autopsy that would prove Brooks blameless. Ray resists, playing upon her sympathies for his us-vs.-them racist worldview (since they both grew up on the poor white side of town) and upon her guilt (since she had an affair with his now dead brother Johnny). Edie, struggling for independence against sexist expectations in a deeply divided town, succumbs to the racial prejudices with which she has grown up.
Clearly, this is no damsel in distress, but neither is she able to be the bold, brave “anti-damsel” this blogathon celebrates…at least not at this point in the film. Like Poitier’s Dr. Brooks’, whose future is on the line (the politics of race among the diverse black characters in the film is well worth its own post and more), so is Edie’s, both as Wharton and Brooks pressure her and as Ray subsequently uses a third brother to threaten her when he breaks out of the hospital. Soon, however, Edie comes to see that racial intolerance only leads to violence and death.
The most engaging scenes in the film to me are those that bring Edie to a change of heart. Having been part of fomenting a race riot, she makes her way to the home of the Dr. Wharton. Here she receives care and also meets Wharton’s black maid, Gladys (Amanda Randolph, radio’s Beulah, in an uncredited role). As a dutiful servant and motherly type (sadly hearkening more than a little to traditional Mammy roles), Gladys openly offers to care for Edie, even as she receives only insulting rejection at first. Such judgment does not hurt Gladys, who has, like all the African American characters in the film, suffered her share of ignorant white people’s attitudes.
In a scene too rarely depicted in Hollywood cinema, we next see Edie in Wharton’s kitchen, along with Gladys and Dr. Brooks’ wife, Cora (Mildred Joanne Smith), who comes to visit Dr. Wharton. Edie is highly uncomfortable sharing a table with a black woman, and she even resists being served by one, notwithstanding that she is in a privileged white man’s kitchen. Gladys and Cora discuss what is going on in town, and share details from their lives, letting Edie into their world and worldview in ways she has never expected to witness. Gladys, for instance, explains how she likes caring for Dr. Wharton, that cooking is something she does for her family for pleasure and for Dr. Wharton to earn a living. (I confess I cringe at this part, written by white men for the mouth of an experienced actress who doesn’t even merit film credit. But I see its point in taking apart the Mammy stereotype.)
When Wharton sits down, he treats Cora with respect, and Edie’s eyes are opened even more. “Negroes” are becoming people to her, individuals with lives of their own, hopes and dreams, and every right to live them without fear and persecution. It is learning this that earns Edie her place at the table, so to speak, along with the subsequent desire and right to side with Wharton and the Brooks family when an autopsy is last completed on the dead Johnny Biddle, proving Dr. Brooks’ treatment of his patient (whom he suspected of having a brain tumor) was appropriate rather than incompetent or malicious. To Ray, Edie is a race traitor. To the viewer, she is brave and wise.
Ultimately, I see Edie as a stand-in for a white, middle-class America dealing with black-white race relations. As she grows in awareness and sympathy, so may audience members (who would not include openly racist individuals because of the cast and theme of the film, certainly, but would likely include less informed, quietly bigoted types). No Way Out was released less than a year after Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) ended school segregation and “separate but equal” laws. And during the year of its release, both Emmet Till’s murder in Mississippi and Rosa Parks’ Civil Rights action in Montgomery, Alabama would make headlines and begin discussions and activism (along with violent reprisals) that America is still dealing with today. In this way, the film is an important one for whites, Edie’s role a central part of advancing liberal pluralism and perhaps even moving past racial “tolerance” to actual respect.
In the end, No Way Out resists simple platitudes to make plain that the Ray Biddles of the world are — or should be — a remnant of the past, of racism that will no longer be tolerated within polite American society. Anti-damsels like Edie, the film suggests, are the way forward.