No Way Out: Kevin Costner caught in a deadly ‘ménage à trois’ with Sean Young and Gene Hackman in this thrilling, Neo-Noir take on ‘The Big Clock’

No Way Out(1987) is director, Roger Donaldson’s adaptation of Kenneth’s Fearing’s suspense novel, The Big Clock. The film set amidst the political intrigue of Washington features Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young and Will Patton in pivotal roles

I love movies which has unique opening sequences; i love movies which sets up its plot economically and visually, without much exposition, and i love movies that uses the fluid, unbroken long take creatively and in service of the film rather than merely as a flashy stylistic device(i like that too, but i like the former more), and in the regard, Director, Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out(1987), photographed by the great John Alcott– who photographed some of the great Stanley Kubrick films, has one of my favorite movie beginnings; the film opens with a beautifully choreographed sequence that reminded me of Hitchcock: an unbroken 3-minute helicopter shot over Washington that starts with the Capitol and ends at a small suburban home. Hitchcock had attempted a similar shot at the beginning of Psycho(1960), but couldn’t pull it off completely due to the technical limitations of the time. This will not be the last time Hitchcock’s ghost will hover over this film, as we will come to see. Now what’s so great about this shot, apart from the visual beauty of it, is that it visually ties up the story that’s going to unfold; the film concerns the political intrigue and paranoia that develops at highest levels of power in the political capital of the country, and it will triggered by a ‘crime of passion’ that will be committed in one of these suburban homes. “Now Way Out” is adapted from Kenneth’s Fearing’s novel, The Big Clock, by writer-producer Robert Garland. The suspense thriller was given a ‘Film Noir’ treatment in 1948 by director, John Farrow. That film, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton in the roles, was set in New York city in the backdrop of the publication industry. This 1987 version is set in  United States Department of Defense in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War, and has Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman reprising the roles played by Milland and Laughton respectively. The interesting thing is that Donaldson didn’t know that this was a remake and tackled it as an original movie. It was only after its premiere that he got to know this from his old pal, Mel Gibson. Perhaps, that’s why this film has a flavor of its own and doesn’t seem to be influenced much by the original.

The original film was a very faithful rendition of the novel: a powerful head of a publishing firm accidentally kills his mistress in a jealous rage suspecting that she has another lover, whom he has seen (and was seen by) leaving her house when he was coming in. He then sets about trying to frame her other lover for the crime, and for this purpose, he chooses a top man in his publications to do the investigation, but irony of ironies, that man turns out to be his mistress’ other lover. The mistress’ lover is placed in a strange situation where he he to hunt himself, even as he tries to prove his innocence and gather evidence against his boss who’s the real killer. In the 1948 version made during the time of “production code”, the character played by Milland is a family man, with wife and children, and his relationship with Laughton’s mistress is just a harmless, platonic one-night tryst. One of the advantages, as well as the main trademark, of the neo-noirs that flourished in 80s and 90s is that they’re able to explicitly depict the sexual perversion and sexual violence that was at the core of many film noirs of the 40s and 50s. But they had to portray them very subtly and indirectly as the “Censorship” of the time would never permit explicit depiction of these sexually taboo subjects. Though neo-noirs have been made throughout the 70s- Klute, Chinatown, Night Moves etc., remaking or reimagining classic film noirs in all their sexy, violent, immoral glory started with Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat(1981), which was a thinly disguised remake of Double Indemnity(1944). The success of the film led to many remakes, like Postman always rings twice and Against all Odds(remade from Out of the Past). No Way Out was part of this cycle, and it depicts the central ménage à trois in all its twisted sexual detail. For additional layering, the filmmakers have infused the film with the feel of cold-war paranoid thriller.

 The Secretary of Defense, David Brice(Gene Hackman), is involved in a bitter power struggle with Senator Duvall(Howard Duff) over sanctioning the development of a new ‘phantom sub’, which Brice believes to be useless. His senior aide, Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) is obsessively devoted to his master, and he brings in his friend, Tom Farrell(Kevin Costner), a rising Naval Officer, into the pentagon to get secret information from other government agencies, such as the CIA, and pass it on to Brice. The much married Brice is having an adulterous affair with a young socialite, Susan Atwell(Sean Young). Brice makes sure that she attends all the major balls in town in which he’s present. In one of those balls, Farrell runs into Atwell and they both embark on a passionate affair, unknown to Brice. Farrell comes to know that she’s Brice’s mistress, but still continues with their affair, that’s until one fateful night, when Brice discovers the affair; he doesn’t know Farrell is the other man- he saw his figure only as a silhouette in the darkness when he comes to visit Atwell, and Farrell is just coming out of her apartment. A jealous Brice violently confronts Atwell about the other man in her life, and the confrontation ends in Atwell’s death, as Brice accidentally pushes her over an upstairs railing. A grief-stricken Brice wants to surrender to police, but Pritchett stops him from doing so; Pritchett cleans up Atwell’s place of any evidence indicating Brice’s involvement; not only that, he convinces Brice that they can pin Atwell’s murder on her ‘other lover’ who has seen Brice entering her apartment. To this end, he creates an elaborate ruse connecting Atwell’s death to a rumored KGB agent in the defense department, codenamed ‘Yuri’. His idea is to convince everyone that this ‘other lover’ is actually ‘Yuri’ and he should be hunted down in the interest of national security.

The man Pritchett and Brice pick to lead the ‘eliminate Yuri’ mission is none other than Farrell. Farrell is shocked to learn about Atwell’s death; but his shock turns into a fight for survival when he realizes that Brice is the real murderer, and Pritchett is attempting to pin the murder on him. One of the main evidence collected from Atwell’s apartment is the negative of a photograph Atwell had taken of Farrell earlier.  Sam Hesselman(George Dzundza), an old friend of Farrell, now working in the Pentagon’s new computer center as its chief programmer-analyst, is tasked with job of unearthing the image left on the emulsion of the old Polaroid. So, Farrell has to move fast before the image is unearthed, as it will seal his fate forever. Farrell’s only chance of escape is to find records regarding a Moroccan jewel box that Brice had gifted to Atwell. Since it’s a foreign gift, it has to be registered in the department records. If he can find the evidence, it will be proof that Brice was Atwell’s lover and involved in her murder. But he needs to stay ahead of not only Hesselman unearthing the image, but also, Pritchett closing in on him through two former CIA assassins he has hired to eliminate everyone that can compromise Brice. The rest of the film deals with this nerve-wracking ‘three-way’ build-up: the slow unearthing of the image in the polaroid, Farrell’s frantic search to unearth evidence against Brice; and Farrell’s attempts to stay ahead of Pritchett. The film ends with some unexpected twists and turns that cast the characters of Pritchett and Farrell in a new light.

Costner’s Farrell is the typical Hitchockian “Wrong man”, who’s on the run to prove his innocence, even as (false) evidence against him is unraveled. He’s a mix of Farley Ganger in “Strangers on a Train” and Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”; except here, much of the action takes place indoors rather than outdoors. Also, the trio of Hackman-Patton-Young resembles the Mason-Landau-Saint trio from “North by Northwest”. Costner gives one of his career-best performances as Farrell. He was already a star on the rise with “Silverado” and “The Untouchables”, but “No Way Out” is the film that cemented his stardom. The character of Farrell is rather tricky: he has to maintain a stone-face throughout the course of the events, even as a tsunami of emotions are raging inside him. If he breaks character even for a moment, he’ll be caught. The film also finds Costner at his sexiest and energetic; two qualities that would become scarce in his latter performances, as he became too stolid and self-serious once he achieved superstardom. Here, he throws himself into action with abandon; there’s an extended chase-action scene in the middle of the film where he has to save the life of Atwell’s lady friend (played by Mrs. David Bowie, Iman) from Pritchett’s assassins, and you can very well see that he’s doing a lot of stuff himself without doubles. His scenes with Sean Young are sizzling to say the least; the sex scene in the backseat of the limousine has become legendary, and much parodied in pop-culture. Young was also a rising actress then, who was most famous for playing the robot, Rachel, in “Blade Runner”. She gives a free-wheeling, eccentric, but extremely likeable performance in the film, which i believe compliments her real personality. Her career was torpedoed by her wild behavior and an accident that happened while preparing for “Batman”. I saw her for the first time in Jim Carrey’s “Ace Ventura pet Detective” where she played “Lt. Lois Einhorn / Ray Finkle”, and was the butt of Carrey’s many over the top jokes. So it was a real surprise to see her so sexy and romantic in this film.

Gene Hackman is good as always, but he’s underused; his character is not a bad-guy, he’s actually a very principled man, but he’s weak, and his weakness is exploited by Pritchett who has great power over him. The scene which leads to Young’s death has Hackman at his best; his subtle shift from hurt lover to a brutal, violent man is brilliant, so is his grief on her death. Interestingly, Hackman has a very similar scene in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 political thriller, “Absolute Power”, where he played the president of United States. He’s also good in the climax, where a new layer is added to his character, when he has to make a difficult choice. Will Patton as Pritchett gives the best performance of the film. His devotion to Hackman rises to the level of madness as the film progresses, and reaches an explosive and tragic climax in the film’s final moments. The only flaw one can point out in his performance is that he’s perhaps too eager to please in some scenes and too menacing in others. The film gives an interesting explanation for his behavior, which could be considered as ‘stereotyping’ of a certain kind of character, which was par for the course in films made at the time. It’s also a pleasure to see George Dzundza playing Costner’s confused friend in the middle of all the political maneuvers.

Now coming to the double-twist ending of the film, which once gain reminds one of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”; it was one of the most criticized aspects at the time of its release; it was considered to be unnecessary, one could easily miss it if one arrives 5 minutes into the film and leaves 5 minutes before the credits roll. It recasts the Pritchett-Brice-Atwell-Farrell quadrangle in a new light. The twist is not improbable; if one looks closely enough, one can find bread crumbs dropped throughout the film. It also explains why Farrell wouldn’t mind continuing the ménage a trois arrangement he has with Atwell, fully knowing that she’s screwing Brice. He didn’t expect Atwell to die, and Atwell is such a free-spirited, likeable woman that both Brice and Farrell- however hideous and damaged people they are- ends up falling in love with her genuinely. Their shock and remorse at her death is also genuine. That’s what the final twist does, it turns the film from a generic tale of an ‘innocent, man on the run triumphing incredible odds and finally emerging triumphant’ into a deeply felt human story of flawed individuals struggling to survive in a corrupt world, which is the common theme of classic Noirs. Each one of the characters in the film are flawed in one way or the other, and all of them are on a selfish pursuit, but each one of them has their redeeming qualities. The effect that “being in love’ has on each one for them is palpable.

Director, Roger Donaldson, has always been adept at tackling stories with morally complex characters. His magnificent adaptation of “The Bounty” had a more complex Captain Bligh and a very ambiguous Fletcher Christian. He would continue to tackle not very likeable characters and dark themes in films like “White Sands”, the 1994 remake of “The Getaway” and “Species”. He will return to the corridors of Washington DC to film two other thriller: one was a reteaming with Kevin Costner on the brilliant ‘Cuban missile crisis’ drama, “Thirteen Days” , and a rather flawed but interesting CIA thriller, “The Recruit” with Al Pacino. In “No way Out”, Donaldson employs the classic Noir device of the protagonist narrating his story in a flashback while talking into a recording device (or to someone else), as was the case in “Double Indemnity” or “Murder my Sweet”. But he wisely eschews the first person “voice over” that makes the film more taut and suspenseful. Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock, Donaldson has structured the film to be a slow-burn, where nothing of consequence seems to be happening in the first hall hour, and then the film keeps building and building the suspense to unbearable levels. He is aided immeasurably by the work of the editors, William Hoy and Neil Travis. It’s very difficult o keep developing the three narrative strands in parallel, but they do a terrific job of maintaining the pace and clarity of the piece. This is important, because the plot has many loopholes, which are left hanging and not satisfactorily resolved. But, the biggest issue i had with the film is with its score; Maurice Jarre is a great composer, who is more famous for his lush romantic compositions for epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and The Professionals. Here, his score is jarring (pun intended) and does not help the film in any way. Jarre has experience in scoring Hitchcock films like “Topaz”, but that doesn’t seem to have helped. The film would have benefitted immensely with a Bernard Hermann like score. That apart, the film is a very well crafted and very engrossing thriller; it’s also a very good looking film, thanks to the brilliance of John Alcott, who passed away before the release of this film. The film is dedicated to his memory.

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