No Way Out (1987)

This movie was hit in its day but 25 years after its initial release I’m still not convinced it has received the critical respect it deserves. A smart Cold War thriller – with 80s heartthrobs Kevin Costner and Sean Young caught in a triangle with evergreen Gene Hackman – it also addressed with originality two important facets of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking: can a remake be good enough to eclipse the original? And can a film survive a twist ending so big that it could blow a hole in the entire narrative?

The following review is offered as part of Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles being offered.

“This is insane, it’s out of control. Your cover story’s not going to hold water!” – Defence Secretary David Brice (Gene Hackman)

During the 1980s and 90s Neo-Noir really took off, thanks to the success of the Double Indemnity inspired Body Heat (1982), also leading to several official remakes of movies from the classic era. Against All Odds (1984) was an update of Jacques Tourner’s sublime Out of the Past (1947) ; James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice got a steamy remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange; Robert DeNiro starred in a new version of Night and the City (1992); I, the Jury (1982) now starred Armand Assante as Mike Hammer; Steven Soderbergh made The Underneath (1995), a visually intriguing update of Robert Siodmak’s 1949 fatalistic mini-masterpiece, Criss Cross. Not to mention the fine 1988 version of D.O.A. (which I previously reviewed here). But when is a remake not strictly speaking a remake then?

Gene Hackman, Sean Young and Kevin Costner in ‘No Way Out’ (1987).

Well, when its a fresh adaptation of the same novel, for starters. No Way Out is in fact an imaginative re-fashioning by writer-producer Robert Garland of Kenneth’s Fearing’s The Big Clock, a classic suspense novel filmed under that title in 1948. That film, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton in the roles now played by Costner and Hackman, stuck pretty closely to the book, with the powerful head of a publishing firm accidentally killing his mistress during a fight when he discovers she has met someone else. He then sets about trying to frame her other lover for the crime, the one who visited her shortly before he did, choosing a member of his staff to do the job – not realising that the man he has chosen was in fact also her lover. The story then develops into a game of cat and mouse as the protagonist tries to avoid an eye-witness who can identify him as the girl’s lover. The new version sticks to the outline of the plot fairly closely, but changes the surroundings completely.

This new version is now set in Washington DC in the highly paranoid world of the intelligence community (or as Hackman’s character says early on, “Calling that collection of piranhas a community is one of life’s ironies”), with the Pentagon now substituting for the novel’s original publishing house. We open as perhaps any self-respecting Neo-Noir should – with a mysterious sequence in which our hero (Costner) is in a smoky room being interrogated. We then flashback six months to the first meeting of Costner and Young at a an official dinner. The two immediately hit it off, leading to some vigorous hanky panky in the back of the limo, one of the most talked about (and parodied) scenes in the film. Young’s inherent cookiness comes through well, as does a surprising warmth and giddy vulnerability as she is caught between two men, one of whom happens to be David Brice, the (married) Secretary of Defence (Hackman), who is currently under pressure to sanction the development of a new ‘phantom sub’. Costner is Tom Farrell, a rising Naval Officer who has just joined Brice’s staff through his friendship with Scott Pritchard (Will Patton). When Brice kills Susan in a jealous rage, this is particularly shocking, especially as by this point we have really grown to like Susan.

Brice turns to Pritchard, who delights in being able to come to his boss’ rescue and comes up with a plan – they will pretend that Susan was killed by ‘Yuri’, the codename given by the CIA to a Russian mole they think may have penetrated the Defence Department. They will use all their resources to frame Susan’s lover and turn to Tom to run the operation. In addition they hire a couple of killers to ensure the lover is eliminated, to make the frame fit and tie up any loose ends. This leads to several fine set-pieces within the Pentagon as Farrell is increasingly isolated by Pritchard, who realises Farrell won’t go along with his increasingly hysterical plan to cover up for Brice. In addition to its strong storyline this is a film with a truly remarkable cast – beyond its trio of leads it also has a wonderful group of supporting players including Howard Duff as a wily old senator; Fred Dalton Thomson (now a real-life politician) as the head of the CIA; Iman (now Mrs David Bowie) as Susan’s vulnerable friend; and best of all Will Patton, who gives a terrific performance as Pritchard, Brice’s senior aide who is secretly in love with him too. Watching him slowly unravel as the plan to save Brice gets more and more unlikely is a joy to behold.

Also notable is George Dzundza as the technical expert torn by his friendship for Farrell and the mounting evidence against him. Although some of the computer jargon seems very out of date, Dzundza gets a really nice role as the technical wiz who is trying to unearth the image left on the emulsion of an old Polaroid (remember those). Its an equivalent of the role of the painter played by Elsa Lanchester in the 1948 film, a clever and effective update that brings the story to a climax when Tom has to ask his friend to derail the program to buy him some time and so has to admit that he was Susan’s lover. Throughout the film we have felt Farrel’s anger at the way that Brice and Pritchard are callously using people just to serve their own interests, but in this scene we also get a glimpse of just how much Susan meant to him. Indeed, the comparatively slow build-up in the film, which privileges their love story over the first third of the movie, today might seem a little slow but is crucial to our understanding of the films – and its mind-blowing final twist.

There are plenty of movies sold on the strength of their surprise endings – for instance The Crying Game (1992), The Sixth Sense (1999) or The Others (2001) became huge hits on the back of their ‘unguessable’ final twist, with some saying they saw it in advance (I did) and some saying they didn’t. In the case of No Way Out, this became a talking point to many critics it seemed completely out of left-field. In theory, you could cut it out of the film as it all takes place at the end. But this is to miss the fact that it has been layered in throughout and more than adequately prepared for in terms of plot and theme – and it is also a nice little cherry on top, especially for those who have read the book or seen the 1948 film version, for whom this will be something brand new. It makes viewing the film a second or third time even more enjoyable.

Not everything in the film works quite as well as it might, the prime offender being the score by Maurice Jarre, the Oscar-winning composer of memorable (if occasionally trite) scores for such David Lean epics as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (2004). Here he goes for an electronic score, something he was dabbling in quite extensively at the time and the results are pretty indifferent, often just sounding like a six-year old pounding on the synth and making as much noise as possible. Things are not helped either by the composer recycling yet again the same spy theme he had used previously in Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (1973) and even Clint Eastwood’s Firefox (1982). But this is a small blip and this remains an exciting, taut and well told mystery movie with great performances, good action sequences and a memorable finish. It also looks especially good – indeed, the film was dedicated to its British cinematographer, John Alcott, who died shortly after the end of shooting and who has worked on several distinguished films with Stanley Kubrick

DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in a decent widescreen transfer sadly lacking in anamorphic enhancement, this is a title that deserves to be treated much better, ideally in HD on Blu-ray, especially in its 25th anniversary year.

No Way Out (1987)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Producer: Laura Ziskin
Screenplay: Robert Garland (from the novel ‘The Big Clock’ by Kenneth Fearing)
Cinematography: John Alcott
Art Direction: Dennis Washington
Music: Maurice Jarre (and a theme song by Paul Anka)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Young, Gene Hackman, Will Patton, Iman, Howard Duff, Fred Dalton Thomson, George Dzundza

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Espionage, Film Noir, Kenneth Fearing, Tuesday's Overlooked Film, Washington DC. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to No Way Out (1987)

  1. Colin says:

    Yeah, it’s not a bad film but I don’t think it’s a great one either. Having said that, you’ve done a very good job of selling it. I feel the greatest strength is the plot structure; it’s hard to go too far wrong when you have such an intriguing premise to work with. However, unlike yourself, I was less impressed with the ending. I generally liked the film when I first saw it but the ending seemed to me like it came out of nowhere and I still don’t believe it quite works.

    I still prefer the original version; apart from the lead roles, there are great supporting turns from Elsa Lanchester and Harry Morgan. And the score of this movie, as you rightly point out, is badly misjudged and dates the whole thing very obviously.

    • Cheers Colin – twist endings really can be the marmite of movie appreciation. I saw it when it came out and had already read the book and seen the 1948 version and loved the way that they updated the plot but kept the essence of the structure. I always thought the big reveal, with its link to the ‘phantom sub’, was a brilliant grace note though obviously upturning the apple cart like that can be too disconcerting. I don’t think it’s a cheat though, I think that themaically it is really bedded in with the new movie and is what helps distinguish it from the original beyond just the pop and fizz of the surprise. But that’s also because I thought that the Cold War scenario was smart in that it intensified the paranoia – I probably should have mentioned that Patton is playing the equivalent role that George Macready has in the 1948 version
      The Big Clock (1948).

      • Colin says:

        The Cold War elements work well enough, and the “twist” is alluded to at points if you’re watching closely, but I felt it just turned the characterization around a little too much. I’ll grant this does distinguish it from the original and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they tried to put a different spin on things rather than just slavishly remake the story.

        • I know what you mean and it is a question of degree – for me it gets away with it, but I totally understand why you think otherwise – of course, trying to talk around this without giving things away is a pure exercise in frutration … One of the things I like about the film is that it is also belongs to the spy genre, which is always a favourite and which was a comparative rarity in the Neo-Noir era so that’s a real plus. If you take a film like The Russia House for instance, no one would class it as Noir though it wouldn’t take much to tweak it in that direction so i am a sucker for those films that take that detour. On re-watching, I was surprised at the comparatively ‘adult’ content (nudity, swearing, violence etc) – always nice to see a film that is neither exploitative nor one that just dumbs everyhting down to secure a PG-13 rating

          • Colin says:

            Actually, there’s no good reason why spy stories and neo-noir don’t go together. The duplicity inherent in the espionage genre provides a natural framework for noir tales to play out.

            Ah, The Russia House! I have great affection for this film; Connery and Pfeiffer are excellent together and I love the mood of regret and melancholy that pervades the picture.The older I get, the more I appreciate that aspect, and the ending has a wonderfully uplifting quality, on both a personal and philosophical level. The score is first class too, complementing what’s happening on screen beautifully.

          • The Russia House is a terrific film and you’re right to praise Jerry Goldsmith’s scoe – it is wonderful and apprently was one of his favourites. The books has a more embiguous finish (it ends before the boat arrives) but otherwise it’s a pretty faihful adaptation. As I get older I certainly also find myself drawn more and more to autumnal subjects, but let’s not dwell on that … A lot of the early Fox Louis de Rochement Noir thrillers has spy backgrounds and I’m always surprised that we weren’t more like that later on (The Falcon and the Snowman is the only obvious recent example I can think of):

          • Colin says:

            As I get older I certainly also find myself drawn more and more to autumnal subjects, but let’s not dwell on that …

            Indeed. Must be positive! 🙂

            I have a nice hardback copy of Le Carre’s novel sitting on my shelves, but I haven’t read it for some reason. Sadly, I could say the same for too many titles.

          • Better than a shelf with no books on it (in fact, that sounds like a total bloody nightmare!). I read the book when it came out after taking a longish break from Le Carre having not really enjoyed the Smiley trilogy all that much and having been quite disappointed by Smiley’s People in particular. But it completely revitalised my interest in him – I think it may be the best of his post-Glaznost books along with The Constant Gardner (also a superior movie I thought). The movie is pretty close though, it has to be said …

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I find the Smiley trilogy a bit, let’s say stodgy. I think I actually prefer Len Deighton’s Samson books for that later period of Cold War espionage.

          • Oh yes, big fan of the Samson trilogies – granted, a 10-book cycle (if you include Winter) did get a bit exhausting, especially when the narrative started to double back on itself, but I think it was a prety amazing swan song for Deighton. Especially the volume that looks at the whole narrative from Fiona Samson’s point of view – quite cruel in places but a brilliant stratagem I thought. Did you ever see the TV version of Game, Set & Match? Apparently Deighton disapproved and this is the reason it has never been officially released on home video. I thought it was wonderful myself, even if Ian Holm’s is a rather different conception from the character in the books. Really hope it comes out one day.

          • Colin says:

            I saw the TV adaptation when it was first produced. I don’t think it was repeated though – correct me if you know otherwise. I remember liking it but it’s so long ago now I couldn’t go into details. I thought Holm was fine, but totally different from the character the books suggest. I’ve heard about Deighton’s dislike for the show; was it because of the way Samson was portrayed?

            All in all, I find Deighton a much more acccessible author than Le Carre, more entertaining if you like.

          • Deighton writes a spy equivalent of handboiled Chandler and Hammett so I agree, can be a lot more fun and frankly less heavy than le Carre. I think you’re right about the show – it was shown with a repeat in the same week and that was it. May have turned up on Granada + maybe but I don’t think so. There is a grey market video of it available on the web but an official release would be great. The ratings were pretty poor as I recall – just too long and complicated I suppose to really hold people’s attention (twice as long as Tinker Tailor and telling three linked but separate stories) but undeniably ambitious. It may be available in the US for download though I’m not sure – there was a VHS release there once upon a time I believe …

  2. Hmm. I’ve somehow managed to miss this one over the years. Your review might make me keep a look out for it on some cable channel or other.

    • Thanks Randy – I’m a big enthusiast of course but it is really worth looking out for. I think there are lots of inexpensive DVDs out there as it was always a budget release with no extras.

  3. p881 says:

    I have seen this a couple of times and enjoyed it. So few good thrillers but this was one.

  4. Mike says:

    Grrr I thought I left my comment about this earlier in the day but it’s obviously disappeared into the Twilight Zone. What I was going to say was a good and fair review of an underrated film. I much prefer Costner in his pre-superstar days when he shone in this sort of thing and I also recall Sean Young being sexy as hell. The gradual reveal of the polaroid is a load of rubbish, but it works within the context of the story and does help bring the tension to a boil.

    As for Against all Odds, what a load of rubbish! But this one ain’t…

    • Thanks Mike – sorry about technical probs. There you go, in 1987 running a program to get the image out of the Polaroid like that seemed totally cutting edge! Against All Odds is a much flashier and less interesting work, though it does have that amazing cast.

      • Mike says:

        I’m sure it’s not your fault, more like mine for trying to comment from my stupid ass phone. After Dead Men don’t wear Plaid, I made a point of catching Rachel Ward in anything but didn’t like her so much in Against all Odds. Plus I’ll see your great cast and raise you one Phil Collins theme song *shudder* I’m still waiting for her possible nude scene in Plaid 2!

        • Well, the Phil Collins song is a darn site better than the Paul Anka ditty we get in NO WAY OUT let me tell you …

          • Mike says:

            Ha ha I don’t even remember it, but I could certainly believe it. The 80s – how proud I was to grow up during those years…

          • Strictly speaking, the song is heard mainly the limo sequence and not during the titles at least, so that’s something … Ah yes, one’s blessed youth. Still Duran Duran couldn’t last forever …

  5. Yvette says:

    I liked this movie too, Sergio. Back then I was still a Kevin Costner fan and I have to admit I think he’s fabulous in this. Well, really everyone in it is pretty fabulous. The character of Dzunda is especially moving in lieu of what happens to him.

    I don’t understand why Will Patton hasn’t had a bigger career. He is excellent in everything he’s done. Maybe he’s too menacing?

    I liked the surprise ending very much. If I’m remembering correctly (haven’t seen this is years) it came as a shock to me and I was aggravated that I hadn’t picked up any hints. I’m usually pretty good at figuring ‘surprise’ endings. i.e. Psycho.

    Actually, for me, the surprise ending ‘makes’ the movie.

    • Cheers Yvette, looks like you and I are on completely the same page on this one. Despite some duds, my affection for Costner has never really waned. Open Range is one of my favourite Westerns of recent vintage and I thought he was really good in another underrated thriller, Mr. Brooks – ever seen that one? No one seems to have seen it but I thought it succeeded far better than it really might have thanks to a clever plot and a really great chemistry between Costner and William Hurt as his evil ‘twin’.

  6. idawson says:

    Saw the original have not seen this version. May eventually catch only as a point of comparison.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    I haven’t had time to read anything here in detail…but I saw this one on original release for free…and felt I’d been vastly overcharged. But I shall reserve further comment till I read the review and comments closely.

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