No Way Out, adapted from Kenneth Fearing’s classic suspense novel, The Big Clock (which I previously reviewed here), is a terrific thriller starring a young Kevin Costner and quirky and beautiful Sean Young as young lovers who get caught in a deadly love triangle with evergreen Gene Hackman. The setting is Washington DC, the time Reagan’s Cold War and 1980s Soviet paranoia provides a convenient cover for murder.
The following (re)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.
“When’s he gonna come out from behind there?” – From the opening scene
The film opens with a really elegant title sequence, an unbroken 3-minute helicopter shot over Washington that starts with the Capitol and ends at a small suburban home. The film proper then begins, perhaps as any self-respecting Neo-Noir should: with a mysterious sequence in which our hero (Costner) is in a smoky room being interrogated by a couple of goons while being observed through a two-way mirror. We then flash back to six months earlier, to the first meeting of Costner and Young at a stuffy reception where they both find themselves at odds with old-fashioned protocol. The two immediately hit it off, leading to some vigorous hanky-panky in the back of a 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 finds herself caught between her love for e Costner and her role as the mistress of 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 his senior aide, Scott Pritchard (Will Patton). When Brice kills Susan in a jealous rage, this is particularly shocking as by this point we have really grown to like her. Indeed, the comparatively slow build-up in the film, which privileges Tom and Susan’s 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 (about which more later).
Cold War Neo-Noir
After Susan dies, 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.
“This is insane, It’s out of control. Your cover story’s not going to hold water.”
The suspense builds up very carefully with the action taking over in the second half as Farrell is set to investigate the crime and find a fall guy (who, it turns out, is actually himself). It’s a great idea and is worked out very dynamically as Brice starts to crumble under the strain of hiding the murder and Pritchard, who is secretly in love with the politician, takes increasingly nasty measures to save him. In addition to its clever storyline (all taken from the novel, which otherwise has a completely different setting), this is a film with a really strong cast: Howard Duff is a wily old senator; Fred Dalton Thomson as the head of the CIA; Iman as Susan’s vulnerable friend; and best if all Will Patton, who gives a terrific performance as Pritchard. Watching him slowly unravel as the plan to save Brice gets more and more unlikely is a joy to behold. And then comes the end …
The twist ending
There are plenty of thrillers sold on the strength of their surprise endings, with the likes of Psycho (1960), The Crying Game (1992) and The Usual Suspects (1995) becoming audience favourites with their ‘unguessable’ twist. In the case of No Way Out, this became a talking point as 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 and unexpected. It makes viewing the film a second or third time even more enjoyable.
Video Availability: The new Blu-ray uses a decent if not stellar master that is nonetheless much, much better than any of the previous DVD releases and comes much closer to doing justice to the work of its British cinematographer, John Alcott, who died shortly after the end of shooting. While I am not a fan of Maurice Jarre’s music (not least because it recycles yet again the same spy theme he had used previously in Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (1973) and Eastwood’s Firefox (1982)), it does sound great on the Blu-ray. The only extra is a decent if stentorian audio commentary recorded in late 2015 with the director.
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 song by Paul Anka)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Young, Gene Hackman, Will Patton, Iman, Howard Duff, Fred Dalton Thomson, George Dzundza