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?
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 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 if 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 not helped either by the composer recycling yet again the same spy theme he had used previous 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