Friday 26 June 2020

Summer of 2020

It is time for a summer break. I will spend the heatwave reading and watching films (and tweeting no doubt), and be back here in a month, July 24. See you then!

If you do not know what to watch this summer, here are five suggestions:

Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger 1947)

Adoption (Márta Mészáros 1975)

Hope and Glory (John Boorman 1987)

Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien 2005)

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins 2007)

I shall end with this moment from Camus's novel The Plague:

'Granted!' Cottard rejoined. 'But what do you mean by "a return to normal life"?'
Tarrou smiled. 'New films at the picture-houses.'

(Translation by Stuart Gilbert.)

Friday 19 June 2020

But is it philosophy?

My previous article about film philosophy had, towards the end, the disclaimer that "it depends on how one defines philosophy". Here I want to go deeper into the core issue, philosophy itself.


Bernard Williams was from time to time (not least in his obituaries) called one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Others felt that he was not a philosopher at all because he had not constructed a comprehensive theory of life and the world; they considered him more of a critical thinker, finding the flaws in others' theories rather than presenting his own grand theory. Which is partly true, and he agreed with that, as he thought that such grand theories were impossible to defend, since the world is too complex. It illustrates a central problem with philosophy; that there is no consensus of what it actual is, or even what a philosopher is. Anthony Quinton put it this way in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: "definitions of philosophy are fairly controversial, particularly if they aim to be at all interesting or profound. That is partly because what has been called philosophy has changed radically in scope in the course of history, with many inquiries that were originally part of it having detached themselves from it." (p. 702)

About what philosophy is, Williams once wrote:
The starting point of philosophy is that we do not understand ourselves well enough. We do not understand ourselves well enough ethically (how or why we should be concerned, positively or negatively, with some human dispositions and practices rather than others); we do not fully understand our political ideals; and we do not understand how we come to have ideas and experiences, and seem moreover to know quite a lot about the world. Philosophy’s methods of helping us to understand ourselves involve reflecting on the concepts we use, the modes in which we think about these various things; and sometimes it proposes better ways of doing this. So much is (relatively) uncontentious. (2002)
For me, doing philosophy is to ask the questions Why? How? What? about our lives, our beliefs, ethics, arts, and about the world and all it contains. It is the art of questioning everything, including the questions themselves. Therefore, I am with Williams in that constructing some kind of all-encompassing theory about the world or existence (or cinema) is maybe tempting but will ultimately crumbled in the face of reality. To be truly philosophical in my view is to answer almost every question with "It depends." We might do speculative thought experiments about the world, but we should not confuse these for the actual world in which we live.

But many famous philosophers through the ages did create complex, all-encompassing theories about life, history and existence, so do I mean that somebody like, say, Hegel was not a philosopher, or a bad philosopher? That is the tricky thing with definitions, they almost inevitably end up with the person making them being caught, figuratively speaking, as having painted himself into a corner. Those who argued that Williams was not a philosopher, also, by implication, made the argument that many famous philosophers through the ages were really not philosophers because they did not have those grand theories either. Would they stand by that?

I will not deny Hegel's position as a philosopher. But he was a certain kind of philosopher. There are more than one kind. There are philosophers of ethics, of history, of the arts, of science, of logic, or language, and so on. If you are a philosopher of such a discipline, it would not be relevant to try to come up with some grand unifying theory about everything, your concern is asking specific questions only within your own field or area of interest. The increasing professionalisation of philosophy during the last 70 years or so has also narrowed the possibility for such grand theories of the past, or the need to have any theory at all. Today it has become more of an academic title, where the definition of a philosopher often being "a person who is working as teacher or researcher at a university's Department of Philosophy." There it does not matter much what kind of ideas and theories they have, if indeed they have any at all. I think this is a limited view of what philosophers are, or who can be one.

On the other hand, there are those who, in the spirit of equality and democracy, claim that anybody can be a philosopher, that anybody who has ever asked a question about ethics or the meaning of life (or something like that) is a philosopher. I think that is too broad, and that we should ask for more. Just because somebody asks a philosophical question does not make them a philosopher. I may cook dinner for myself but that does not make me a chef. To be a philosopher there has to be a consistency and frequency to the asking of questions and thinking about the issues at hand; a certain level of complexity to the questions and answers; and some larger aim than just spontaneously wondering about something philosophical. People are fond of saying about stand-up comedians that they were not particularly funny and implying that they themselves are much funnier than the comedian. But the challenge is not only to tell jokes but to do it every night, and in new surroundings, and with new audiences; to be able to handle not just jokes, but logistics and crowds. There is a parallel to philosophers (and chefs): it is not just asking a deep question or having a deep thought (or cook a good dinner), but how, why, and when you do it. It is also about providing principles and premises from which to conduct the work, as the basis for asking the questions. Not necessarily general principles or premises that are taken to be always true, but ones that are at least specific for each case, or each case study. To quote Williams again, from another article: "Philosophy comes into it when the discussion becomes more reflective or theoretical or systematic, and it is typical of philosophy that its discussions of ethics and politics have some connection with those other more theoretical questions, about knowledge, action and psychology." (1996)

In short, my definition of philosophy, of doing philosophy, is to ask fundamental questions (How? Why? What? When?) about life, humans and our world, and that includes ethics, art, politics, medicine, metaphysics and philosophy itself. Being philosophical is to question everything, including yourself and your questions. It is also an on-going process; you do not one day say "That's it! I have all the answers." And a philosopher is a person who does these things regularly, as a central part of their life, and does it at a certain level of complexity.


Where does cinema come into this? There are several instances where film and philosophy connect, and here are four such connections, let us call them a, b, c, and d. They can be summarised like this:
a) Films that are about philosophers, which is the most banal connection.
b) Films that can be used to illustrate a philosophical issue, or thought problems, and films have been used like this throughout film history.
c) Individual films, or whole oeuvres, that function as articulations of a philosophical position or beliefs of the filmmakers who made them.
Those three, a, b, and c, are not difficult to understand, are not in any particular dispute, and film is not different in this regard from, for example, novels and plays. At least b and c are also possible with other art forms, such as painting and architecture. This is not film-specific.
d) This is the more vague one, where some film-philosophers have argued that films can themselves do philosophy. Judging by some scholars' articulation of d, it is no different from b and/or c, but according to others it is something different; it is for them when the medium of film itself presents a philosophical argument. This is something I am sceptical about, and find has not been properly argued for. In my previous article I gave a suggestion of how I thought this could be done, by saying that there is a visual consistency in the films of Anthony Mann that provides an idea of the world, of nature, as being at best indifferent, but might also be said to be hostile to humans, and that this idea is not presented in terms of plot, dialogue or characters but only visually, and therefore it could be argued that this philosophical perspective of the world and us humans is done by the film itself. But whether this is a meaningful way of talking about it, rather than just saying that this is a persistent theme in Mann's films, is doubtful.

Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta 2012)

Another idea of how films "do philosophy" has been formulated this way: "What I found in turning to think consecutively about film a dozen or so years ago was a medium which seemed simultaneously to be free of the imperative to philosophy and at the same time inevitably to reflect upon itself - as though the condition of philosophy were its natural condition." Stanley Cavell wrote that in 1981, in the article "North By Northwest", yet while it is true that some films, from Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton 1924), to Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock 1942), to Prison (Ingmar Bergman 1949), to Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard 1963), to The Honey Pot (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1967), to On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt 1969), and so on, do reflect upon themselves, it would be difficult to argue that films by default do this, or why it should be the case that they should.

At least Cavell in that instance provided some kind of definition, but those who write about film and philosophy rarely provide that, and it is often not clear in what sense what they are doing is different from ordinary film criticism or film theory, or what they mean by philosophy. Yet arguing about definitions and to find first principles and premises on which to ground the argument, article or book, is to me a key aspect of philosophy. This is in general relevant, not just when it comes to philosophy, but in discussions about, for example, genre.


The attentive reader has probably already noticed that I am not impressed by the film philosophy field. There is some good work done there, but I am not convinced that what is being done under that banner is necessarily philosophical, or much different from ordinary film theory or film criticism, and neither have I been convinced that film has unique properties that makes it especially worthy of philosophical inquiries, or that it can make its own philosophy, however defined. But you can talk about film and philosophy together, just as you can with other art forms. Films, books, and art in general, can cohabit with philosophy, to the benefit of either field.

Before you bring philosophy to a film or a filmmaker, there are some things to consider. Martha Nussbaum's concerns about philosophers' discussing Shakespeare are relevant for the discussion of films too, so when you read this quote you can substitute "Shakespeare" with "film" or "cinema":
To make any contribution worth caring about, a philosopher's study of Shakespeare should do three things. First and most centrally, it should really do philosophy, and not just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should pursue tough questions and come up with something interesting and subtle--rather than just connecting Shakespeare to this or that idea from Philosophy 101. A philosopher reading Shakespeare should wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way. Second, it should illuminate the world of the plays, attending closely enough to language and to texture that the interpretation changes the way we see the work, rather than just uses the work as grist for some argumentative mill. And finally, such a study should offer some account of why philosophical thinking needs to turn to Shakespeare's plays, or to works like them. Why must the philosopher care about these plays? Do they supply to thought something that a straightforward piece of philosophical prose cannot supply, and if so, what?
She is not impressed though. "But armed with their standard analytic equipment, they frequently produce accounts that are laughably reductive, contributing little or nothing to philosophy or to the understanding of Shakespeare." One sympathises.


As I prepared these articles about film and philosophy, I made a list of several filmmakers and provided a basic principle which their respective oeuvres can be said to be about. I dismissed some of these because they were more political than philosophical, but here are some examples of how you could talk about philosophy in connection to specific filmmakers, combining b and c from above. I have ordered them thematically:

Alfred Hitchcock: transferred guilt and masochism.
Claire Denis: colonial guilt.
Henry King: forgiveness and acceptance from a Christian perspective.
Michael Haneke: denied (but shared) guilt.
Nicole Holofcener: imperfections and the acceptance of personal flaws.

Clint Eastwood: the essentialness of community.
Don Siegel: the ironic meaninglessness of existence.
Douglas Sirk: the importance of personal respect.
Jean Renoir: shared humanity and the fragility of the bond between people.
Nicholas Ray: the loneliness of man.

Fred Zinnemann: responsibility to self.
Howard Hawks: responsibility to the group, and professional ethics.
Jean-Pierre Melville: responsibility to personal ethics and code of conduct.
John Ford: responsibility to history and/or society.
Yasujiro Ozu: responsibility to family.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Jacques Rivette: the performativity of self and life as storytelling.
Mikio Naruse: capitalist oppression of humanity.
Otto Preminger: relativism and objectivity.

Consider these as suggestions and starting points for conversations or analyses of these filmmakers' oeuvres. I am not saying that each and every film explicitly deal with these issues, or that their work are only about these issues, but I think that they could be interesting entry points for further thinking, both about philosophy in film and about these particular filmmakers. There are many other filmmakers to which one might add similar first principles, but these will do for now.

There is something that films perhaps have a unique capacity to provide, and which we might talk about in philosophical terms, and that is a sense of awe and wonder, of mysticism. I have written about that before (see here and here), and might come back to again. To the extent that I have a philosophy of film, that is where it can be found.


Cavell, Stanley (1981), "North By Northwest" in Critical Inquiry, republished in Cavell on Film (2005)

Nussbaum, Martha (2008), "Stages of Thought" in The New Republic, republished in the anthology Philosophical Interventions (2012)

Williams, Bernard (1996) "On Hating and Despising Philosophy" in London Review of Books, republished in the anthology Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 (2014)

Williams, Bernard (2002) "Why Philosophy Needs History" in London Review of Books, republished in the anthology Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 (2014)

Quote from Anthony Quinton in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy - New Edition (2005)

My previous article about film and philosophy:

My article about awe and wonderment:

While Williams is not somebody invoked by film philosophy scholars, he wrote about film sometimes (such as about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine 1920) as an illustration of a philosophical point) and he chaired the British Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (it was called the "Williams Committee"), set up by the Home Office, in the 1970s.

As a bonus, here is Iris Murdoch talking about the differences and similarities between literature and philosophy (and you can substitute literature with film)

Friday 12 June 2020

Film and philosophy

In Poetics, Aristotle says that "poetry is more philosophic, and more deserving of attention, than history" since it deals with more universal issues, and history "speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened." Film can also do the work of poetry, or be like poetry, and film and philosophy can be fruitfully combined. This is what I want to discuss in this article, and as philosophy is something that interests me almost as much as film, and something I have studied almost as much too (I have a Master of Arts in History of Ideas), I aim to write more about it from now on. But first a brief background.

Film has been discussed in relation to philosophical issues for over 100 years. Sometimes by philosophers such as Henri Bergson and Martin Heidegger (however dismissively), but mainly by film theorists such as Hugo Münsterberg, Rudolf Arnheim and André Bazin, who took a philosophical approach to art. The American critic Dwight Macdonald complained in 1964 that film critics nowadays (i.e. in the 1960s) had to translate everything from "the language of art" to "the language of philosophy". I wonder what he would say today when "film philosophy" has become a fast-growing approach within film studies, whether it is to use films to illustrate philosophical issues or to make interpretations of films from a philosophical perspective. There are also those who claim that films in themselves are philosophical, not just because of the content of the film but due to it being a film; that films "philosophize" or "do philosophy." There are several anthologies on these issues, such as The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Texts and Readings (2005) or The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film (2009). There are journals like Film-Philosophy (published by Edinburgh University Press) and Film and Philosophy (published by the Society for the Philosophic Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts). A fairly recent edited collection I can recommend is Film as Philosophy (2017), edited by Bernd Herzogenrath. For anyone who wants an accessible introduction, Robert Sinnerbrink's New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (2011) is a good starting point.

Sinnerbrink wants New Philosophies of Film to be an introduction to the philosophical discussion of film and also an independent contribution to philosophical film criticism. The first part of the book is a background to philosophers' interest in film, the second part is an overview of the last decades' philosophical discussions of cinema, and the third part is Sinnerbrink's analysis of three films. The book's division into chapters and parts is a bit unclear, and overall the book should have received better editing. As an example, a chapter begins with the question "Can films philosophize?" The question is relevant and linked to Sinnerbrink's ambition, but it is found in the beginning of chapter seven, on page 141. It would have made more sense if it had been asked on page 1. The slight confusion, and the repetitions that also occur, may be because parts of the book have been published before, as individual articles in journals or anthologies. It is common that academics publish what seems to be a new book which, it turns out, is instead a collection of previously published material, and such books are especially in need of a skilful editor.

In the second part, Sinnerbrink describes which questions have been, and still are, the focus of the philosophical discussions. Questions such as whether film is art; whether film has unique properties, specific to itself; and about the relationship between film and spectators. As usual, he divides the philosophical traditions into two groups, or schools: the analytic-cognitive and the continental (or, as he also calls them, the "rationalist" versus the "romantic" school). The most prominent advocates of the "rationalist" school are Noël Carroll and David Bordwell, while Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell are represented as members of the "romantic" school. The traditional division of analytical vs. continental philosophy is a simplification though, there are clear and important links between the two, and it is one of the book's strengths that Sinnerbrink does not want to put them against each other but tries to find the best from both schools, to find a synthesis.

In the third and final section, Sinnerbrink analyses three films from a philosophical perspective. What he is looking for is "the exploration of cinematic thinking by way of detailed film-philosophical criticism” (p. 139). The films he has chosen for this are INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006), Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) and The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005) because, he says, they are non-mainstream narrative; genre hybrids; and "display a 'resistance to theory'" (p. 135) and as such they are especially suitable for philosophical readings. I disagree.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

One of the biggest issues I have with film philosophy is that they too often focus on the obvious and ready-made, and it is often the same examples over and over again. Particularly popular are, for example, Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa 1950), The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman 1957), The Matrix (the Wachowskis 1999), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004). But it is not particularly interesting to discuss The Matrix as being about the world as an illusion, since they hardly talk about anything else in it. It is more interesting to have a discussion about the world being based on illusions in relation to, say, The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch 1940), Laura (Otto Preminger 1944) or Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls 1948). There are plenty of books and articles about Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy of ethics and its relationship to the films of the Dardenne brothers, but since the brothers themselves have mentioned Levinas in every other interview, that is not particularly interesting to discuss either. I have written about the ethics in the films of Henry Hathaway, and I mentioned Levinas at one point, because that is not obvious and therefore often interesting to explore.

Despite the fact that one of the inspirations for the current vogue of film and philosophy is Stanley Cavell, who wrote about the importance and joys of Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, it is rare for such films to be under consideration today, and for many others as well. There are primarily three kinds of films that feature in film philosophy texts: high concept art cinema such as Michael Haneke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, David Lynch and Terrence Malick; puzzle-films (or mind-game films); and a certain kind of science fiction, such as Stephen Mulhall's work on the Alien-series. While there is nothing wrong with such films, and I have written about some myself, it would be a richer and more interesting field of cinema studies if it was more widespread and broad-minded, because any kind of film is suitable for a philosophical enquiry, discussion, or analysis.


But what can be said about, as Sinnerbrink puts it, the marriage between film and philosophy? That films can be used to illustrate philosophical problems is obvious. Even a conventional action movie such as Executive Decision (Stuart Baird 1996) can address a concrete moral dilemma, in this case the question of whether it is right to sacrifice one or a few lives in order to save the lives of many more. (A thought experiment that is sometimes called the "trolley problem," first discussed, I think, by Philippa Foot.) Discussing film's "essence" on the basis of philosophical issues is also relatively unproblematic, as long as one is aware that it is just a discussion and that questions such as "is film an art form?" have no definitive answers. It is a matter of definitions, and therefore the discussion should be conducted at that level, about our definitions. If I claim that film is art, my opponent cannot say "You are wrong." (because on what ground?) but on the other hand, she can question my definitions and their consequences and use arguments in the style of "According to your own definition of what art is, it is not obvious that you should also classify film as art." Even when there are no definitive answers, one can still question whether the arguments are consistent and whether they are based on misconceptions or incorrect assumptions. Here is an example:

In the February 2020 issue of Film-Philosophy there is an article about boredom in cinema, how art films can be boring, and that this is a good thing because it makes it possible for “spectators to question what they see and hear, and more generally to problematise the relationship with audio-visual images” and ”it allows us to reflect on the ways we relate to and live in this extremely visible world” and "to question cinema and its images."

The problem I have with this is that boredom is not an objective property of a film, as colour or length is, but a subjective response from the spectator. L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni 1962) and Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman 1972) were used as examples of "boring" art films, yet I have seen both many times and never found either to be boring in any meaningful sense of the word. When I watch them, I am focused on them and my mind does not wander, and neither do I start to question the ways of the world we live in. I would think that those who like L'Eclisse and Cries and Whispers would, on average, not find them boring, and hardly anyone would start "an interrogation of cinema, its images and our relationship with them" because of any longueurs in either film.

I have on the other hand been bored, experienced deep boredom, by the Avengers films. Given the premise of the article, it would therefore be better for me to watch them instead of L'Eclisse. Alas, the article does not give any reason to believe that Chiara Quaranta, who wrote it, would agree with this. I am aware of the fact that she speaks of three different kinds of boredom, borrowed from Heidegger, and that by being bored by the Avengers films I am supposedly experiencing boredom of the first kind (which is bad, because the filmmakers did not mean for us to be bored), whereas those who are bored by L'Eclisse experience boredom of the third kind (which is good, because the filmmakers meant for us to be bored), but really, what is that? In any case, I am more likely to reflect on the ways of the world when watching Avengers: Infinity War (Joe and Anthony Russo 2018) than when watching any film by Bergman, or even Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman 1975); a film which keeps me in a constant state of immediate presence within the film, and not on any mind-wandering or "thinking about our modes of producing and consuming visual images." The argument of the article leads to some interesting questions though. If the alleged boredom of L'Eclisse is supposed to be a good thing, and I do not feel any boredom, has Antonioni then failed as a filmmaker by making his film insufficiently boring?

It is definitely relevant to talk about how different approaches to filmmaking and narration have different effects on spectators, but you cannot do so from the perspective of making one kind of imagined response a universal, true response, and then make ethical or practical assumptions from said response, because they will be misleading.


When it comes to the question of whether films can be philosophical in themselves, if film can "do philosophy" as some put it, it is complicated. Sinnerbrink claims that they can, as do others, but it is easy to get the impression that it is only for individual films. But if it is only for certain individual films, and then mainly based on their stories and dialogue, to what extent can you then say that film itself add something philosophical? It should not matter which movie you discuss. Furthermore, if the philosophical aspect of the film being discussed is something that was already present in the script, then it is not the film as moving images that is doing philosophy. If it is already there in the script, it is not medium specific, and no different from a book. It is almost always the content of the film that is being discussed, and not the style, but if you argue that film, by the very nature of it being a film, is doing philosophy, it must be in its style that the philosophy appears, not in the words that are written before filming began.

Melisa Sözen in Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan 2014)

Further, is the argument that anything, or at least any art form, has the potential to "do philosophy," so books or paintings or a symphony could also "do philosophy"? If so, then it is nothing special about films but just in the nature of art, or at least narrative art. But if not, what makes films special? Personally, I think it would be wiser to not pursue that chain of thought, except for specific examples that are focused on the style of a given film.

It also depends on how one defines philosophy, and what it means to be philosophical. If we say that you are philosophical if you discuss existential, moral and metaphysical issues in a coherent matter, then it is obvious that some directors make films that are consciously philosophical, such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Kelly Reichardt, Fred Zinnemann and Abbas Kiarostami, albeit mainly in terms of stories, actions and character development; the content of the films. But since the way the content is presented, the style of the films, is related to its content, it can be in the combination of the two that philosophy arises.

One can also think of other cases where the philosophical message is more subconscious and where perhaps it is precisely the film medium itself that provides the philosophising. An example is the films of Anthony Mann. His films are mainly discussed on the basis of their oedipal conflicts and their links to Greek dramas and myths. But if you just look at them, and Mann is one of the great visual filmmakers, then a specific message emerges (even with the sound muted). Mann's images are filled with sharp stones, high mountains, threatening clouds, sharp edges and shadowy interiors, of desolate cities and open spaces. These images, through Mann's collected works, together form a message that says that the world, perhaps even the universe, is threatening, but indifferent to us humans. That we are lonely and doomed in advance and that our mutual struggles fade before the real conflict, the conflict between man and the elements. The point here is that it does not matter if it is done consciously or unconsciously, it is the film images themselves that speak. It could be an example of how films "do philosophy" in the sense that a view of the world is formed outside of plot, dialogue or script.

Border Incident (Anthony Mann 1949)


This post is a translated, updated, and rewritten version of an article by me published in 2013 in the Swedish philosophy journal Filosofisk tidskrift (in print only).

The quotes from Aristotle, Macdonald, and Quaranta are from:

Aristotle, Poetics, (unclear but around 335 B.C.) my quote is from chapter 9, and taken from

Macdonald, Dwight, “8½: Fellini’s Obvious Masterpiece” (1964), republished in Awake in the Dark, ed. David Denby (1977)

Quaranta, Chiara, "A Cinema of Boredom: Heidegger, Cinematic Time and Spectatorship" (2020), in Film-Philosophy, February 2020

More on Anthony Mann can be found in my earlier article:

Henry Hathaway and ethics is discussed in this article for example:

Friday 5 June 2020

No Way Out (1950)

One of the more tiresome clichés, or prejudices, about "old films" in general, and older Hollywood films in particular, is that they are politically conservative, or reactionary, or at best dated and timid, compared to films of our own, eminently progressive, era. You meet this prejudice in the class room on a regular basis, where students respond to almost any random film you show them with "Wow, it is so ahead of its time." even when the film is firmly of its time. They take their own prejudice of the past to be the true past, and if this film does not confirm that prejudice it seems they are convinced that the film is unusual; it cannot be that they are mistaken. (Surprise is in general a feeling that arises when somebody discovers that their prejudice is belied by reality.) It is unfair to single out students though as any number of articles, books and tweets will tell you that this is a widespread belief, including among film scholars. (There is also a related tendency to believe that people who like older films are also, per extension, politically conservative, or reactionary, but that is a topic for another day.)

I was reminded of this again last week, by two articles that made that assumption. I suppose it comes from people not having seen many older films, and not being interested in them either, yet being convinced of their inferiority. I am not knowledgeable enough about silent films, but films from the 1930s can sometimes be shockingly powerful in their depiction of crime, corruption and racism, and it continues through the decades. I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy 1932), They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy 1937), All the King's Men (Robert Rossen 1949, who also wrote They Won't Forget), Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown 1949), Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur 1950), Riot in Cell Bloc 11 (Don Siegel 1954), The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson 1955), Reprisal! (George Sherman 1956), Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick 1957), Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk 1959), The Intruder (Roger Corman 1962), Shock Corridor (Sam Fuller 1963) and so on and so forth. These were just a handful of the many films made in Hollywood that took a harsh look at the United States. Now I want to focus on another one, No Way Out (1950), which is not as forceful and striking (or unsettling) as the ones mentioned above, but of considerable interest none the less.


After World War 2, 20th Century Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck embarked on a project of social realism, films about current issues shot in a clear, functional style. Gentlemen's Agreement (Elia Kazan 1947) is a prominent example, about antisemitism. Another is No Way Out, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on an original story by Lesser Samuels. (Philip Yordan also had a hand in the script, as he so often did, or claimed he did.) The theme is racism, and relationships between white and black. It was the first film role for Sidney Poitier, as a doctor fresh from medical school, and with Richard Widmark as a hoodlum and pathological racist.

Despite being an original idea and script, No Way Out feels like an adapted theatre play, the way it is told and staged. The last shot in particular, in its framing, placing of bodies, the use of sound, the length, feels more theatrical than cinematic. I think this was deliberate on Mankiewicz's part, who always had a theatrical streak to him and his films. (This is not meant as criticism, just an observation.) He uses long takes throughout the film, and the pacing is somewhat slow and thoughtful. In keeping with the social realist look, everything is brightly lit, shot at a distance and with depth of field. Unlike other films in this style however, there are few outdoor sequences and little, if any, location work. One scene, when Widmark's character attacks a woman in her home, is shot in darkness with only a rectangular field of light across the middle of the screen, but that is almost the only sequence that deviates from the basic look of the film.


The story of the film is that two brothers are caught by the police during an attempted robbery, and in the ensuing struggle both are shot. They are taken to hospital and Luther Brooks, the doctor played by Poitier, is the one who is on call. While they are both shot in the leg, one of the brothers show other symptoms and Brooks suspects he has a brain tumour. He tries to save the man, who is already dying, but fails. The other brother, Ray Biddle, played by Widmark, is convinced that the black doctor deliberately killed him, and first tries to stir up a riot in the black areas in Chicago, where the film is set, and when that fails Biddle instead tries to kill Brooks.

One of the weaknesses with the film is that racism is primarily shown in its extreme form. Biddle is clearly mad, so brutal, violent and abusive he would appeal to no one. No white person would watch him and think "that could be me" and Mankiewicz might be said to make things too neat and easy. If that is what racism is, then almost any viewer can think "Of course it is bad, but it has nothing to do with me." There are a few scenes in which the fact that Brooks is black creates some more general tension, but those who are racist in this film are distinctly othered. They are not like you and me. The above-mentioned Gentlemen's Agreement, about antisemitism, is better in that respect because in that film almost everybody show varying degrees of prejudices against Jews, from the casual, unthinking to the self-evident hateful. Most viewers would be able to recognise themselves or people close to them in any of those characters, and therefore their own prejudices would be challenged.

But at the same time, in Gentlemen's Agreement, the main character is not a Jew, but a gentile, played by Gregory Peck, who pretends to be Jewish while writing a story about antisemitism. Mankiewicz has said that he did not want that for No Way Out, and he did not want it to be one of those films in which the main character is mixed-race or light-skinned, and played by a white actor, like in the previous year's Pinky (Elia Kazan 1949). He wanted the lead and hero to be played by a black actor, and be part of the black community. Sidney Poitier gives a strong, nuanced performance, and is the best aspect of the film, together with the dialogue and use of sound. His character would become almost a stereotype, frequently occurring in white liberals' films about racism: he is flawless, calm, wise, kind and professional. Just as Biddle is somebody nobody would defend, Brooks as somebody almost nobody could object to, unless they were crazy like Biddle. Mankiewicz has created two opposites, one almost pure evil and the other almost pure good. Brooks is also a pacifist. His black colleagues, and his brother-in-law, are ready to fight against the white man; not turn the other cheek but strike back. Brooks will have none of that, which also makes him easy for a white audience to accept.

Poitier and Mildred Joanne Smith (playing husband and wife)

There is a riot in the film but, which was unusual at the time, it is the blacks who lead the charge. They have got word that a white racist mob is gathering, and they strike before the mob has got going. The whites do not stand a chance, and it is one instance of the film when it gets more daring. Mankiewicz has provided Brooks as a pacifist alternative, but given the circumstances it is also clear that it was necessary for the black characters to take up arms and attack. They are within their rights Mankiewicz seems to say. (This sequence was one of the reasons No Way Out was initially banned in Chicago, and it was cut or trimmed in various cities and southern states.)

In the end, Biddle fails at killing Brooks, and when he is disarmed, Brooks empties the gun of its bullets and instead uses it to stop the bleeding in Biddle's leg. The symbolism is not subtle, and the film has been criticised for Brooks's unwillingness to strike back. Some has even said he sacrifices himself for the white man. But that is not what is happening. For one thing he is a doctor, and his duty is to save lives, not take lives. He also knows that killing Biddle will only be worse for him than for Biddle. But what primarily complicates the scene, and the character of Brooks overall, comes from the way Poitier plays him. While this is rarely spelled out or shown explicit, Brooks is a man who is constantly aware of racism, of him being a black man in a white world. He feels it all the time, it consumes him, it wears him down and makes him bitter. He is always trying to be the best man, and he is filled with doubt about himself, and this is because of the racism he knows is all around him. This is significantly more subtle than the use of a gun to stop the bleeding, because it is hardly ever spelled out. It is in his eyes, body, movements, and in his voice. His last line in the film is "Don't cry, white boy, you're gonna live." but he says it in a way that suggests he is sorry for this. He does not want to be the man who kills Biddle, even if he would prefer if Biddle had died.


As is inevitable with Mankiewicz, class is an important aspect of the film. Biddle is poor, white working class, and he is filled with resentment against other classes, and against those who try to move away from the area of which he is from. He is a man who is trapped by his own circumstances, and part of his racism stems from his feeling of being left behind by society, and believing that other people are more concerned about standing up for minorities, such as African Americans, than for people like him. His general hatred against society has found an outlet by being directed against blacks. And a black man who is above his own class he finds even more intolerable.

There are two other main characters in the film, Edie, played by Linda Darnell, and Dr. Wharton, played by Stephen McNally, who is the head doctor and Brooks' mentor. Edie used to be married to the dead brother, and also had an affair with Ray Biddle, but now she wants to leave that world behind her. She is conflicted about this, and at first uneasy with Brooks and blacks in general. But during the course of the film she changes and grows, and she is the only one who does this. The other characters are more or less the same the entire film. In one scene she goes to Dr. Wharton's home because she feels sick and exhausted. He is about to leave, and instead he leaves her in the care of his housekeeper Gladys, played by Amanda Randolph. Edie is at first hostile to Gladys, but surrenders and spends the night in her care. The next morning they have breakfast together, and it is a beautiful scene because they find they have something in common. They are bonding as two women living under a patriarchy; both victims of violence and abuse from men. Edie wants to know what makes men, the white men she has known, like that, like "wild animals", and compares them to dogs chasing a rabbit, tearing it apart and then moving on to chasing a new one. Gladys has no answer. The character of Gladys is traditional, and it was one of the very few kinds of roles available to black actors until then, but it is still a fine performance.

No Way Out is not just about racism, it is about class and gender too, and, to use of current phrase, Mankiewicz takes an intersectional view. This is another way in which I find it to be more complex and satisfying than it first appears. Mankiewicz has made several films that are much better, not least their visuals and narrative, but this one is still good.

Mankiewicz's comment about wanting a black actor for the lead is from Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Interviews (2008) p. 171

Information about banned and cut versions comes from the American Film Institute's website.

I have written about Intruder in the Dust before:

I have written about Reprisal! before:

And about Mankiewicz:

And about the not unrelated Lydia Bailey (Jean Negulesco 1952):