Getting to Know: Sidney Poitier

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was said that the Metro-Goldyn-Mayer studio boasted more stars than there are in the heavens. With over 90,000 titles available to rent, Cinema Paradiso has even more famous faces on its books and users can learn more about their lives on and off screen in the new Getting to Know series, which begins with the peerless Sidney Poitier. 

Humble Beginnings

Bahamian tomato farmers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier were in Miami to sell their crop when Sidney Poitier was born two months prematurely on 20 February 1927. He spent his first three months in a Florida hospital while he gained his strength, but he grew up on Cat Island, which was so remote that he didn't know anything about electricity, automobiles or moving pictures until the family relocated to Nassau, the capital of the Caribbean archipelago of the Bahamas, when he was 10 years old. While Reginald worked as a taxi driver, Evelyn raised her seven sons in the Catholic faith.

When he was 15, Sidney returned to his birthplace to stay with one of his brothers. As an American citizen, he was able to travel freely. But he was poor and modestly educated and was taken aback when he experienced racial prejudice for the first time. His mother had warned him to 'charm them into neutral', and he followed her advice when he moved to New York in 1943 and improved his reading skills with the help of a waiter at the restaurant where he was washing dishes. Lying about his age after being shot in the leg during a race riot, Poitier volunteered for the US Army. However, he was disturbed by the rigidity and racism he encountered in the ranks and faked insanity in a bid to secure a discharge. Ultimately, he remained in uniform for a year and 11 days before returning to Harlem to embark upon his acting career.

Starting Out on Stage

Despite his good looks and dignified demeanour, Poitier was painfully shy and struggled to impress when he responded to a want ad for new actors at the American Negro Theatre. Indeed, co-founder Frederick O'Neal was so appalled by his sing-song Bahamian accent that he refused to let him perform and Poitier spent months parroting radio broadcasts in the restaurant kitchen in order to perfect an American brogue. When he re-applied to the ANT, O'Neal agreed to let him take acting lessons in return for doing chores backstage and Poitier found himself understudying Harry Belafonte in Frank Gabrielson's play, Days of Our Youth

Much to his surprise, he was cast in a small role in a Broadway production of Aristophanes's comedy, Lysistrata, which folded after four days. However, he bounced back at ANT with a prominent part in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's screwball classic, You Can't Take It With You, which had earned Frank Capra an Oscar brace when he filmed it in 1938. However, Poitier's fortunes changed when he joined the company of a touring production of Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta and he made his first appearances on screen, as an unbilled extra in Arthur H. Leonard's Sepia Cinderella (1947) and as himself in the Army Signals Corps documentary, From Whence Cometh My Help (1949).

Making an Immediate Impression

In later life, Poitier revealed that he took roles that would reflect well on his father and he made a wise choice when he agreed to play Luther Brooks in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950), as he drew plaudits for his performance as a doctor who is targeted by bigot Richard Widmark after his brother dies in Poitier's care. He endured more prejudice on teaming with Canada Lee to play clergymen enduring abuse in apartheid Johannesburg in Zoltan Korda's adaptation of Alan Paton's bestselling novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1951). 

But, while Poitier was determined to counter the image presented by such black predecessors as Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Mantan Moreland and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Hollywood wasn't ready for a black superstar at a time when many exhibitors in the Deep South still insisted on cutting scenes involving African-American actors that weren't key to the plot. Consequently, Poitier found himself in the ranks as a corporal with General Patton's forces in Budd Boetticher's war movie, The Red Ball Express (1952), and as a showboating basketball player alongside the legendary Harlem Globetrotters in Go, Man, Go! (1954), which was marked the American directorial debut of ten-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Wong Howe.

But it was a rare moment of delinquency that brought Poitier back to the attention of the critics, as he joined Vic Morrow among the tough inner-city students giving new teacher Glenn Ford a hard time in Richard Brooks's take on Evan Hunter's acclaimed novel, The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Once again, however, a shortage of worthwhile roles for black actors hampered Poitier's progression and he had to make do with supporting parts in Good-bye My Lady (1956), William Wellman's story about a Basenji dog in the Mississippi backwoods; Richard Brooks's Mau Mau uprising saga, Something of Value; and Raoul Walsh's pre-Civil War plantation melodrama, Band of Angels (both 1957).

Poitier played another African resistance leader opposite Eartha Kitt in Michael Audley's The Mark of the Hawk (1957) either side of two pairings with John Cassavetes. Martin Ritt's Edge of the City (1957) saw the BAFTA-nominated Poitier reprise a role he had played in Robert Alan Authur's 1955 teleplay, Man Is Ten Feet Tall, as a stevedore who takes newcomer Cassavetes under his wing and urges him to resist the bullying tactics of bigoted workmate Jack Warden. But, while this waterfront noir had the sting of authenticity, Pat Jackson's Virgin Island (1958) felt somewhat coy, even though it had been adapted from Robb White's memoir, as Poitier helped treasure seeker Cassavetes and new wife Virginia Maskell build their new home on the British Virgin Islands.

'The Martin Luther King of the Movies'

This title was bestowed upon Poitier by biographer Aram Goudsouzian and it admirably sums up the way in which he was perceived in Hollywood as the Civil Rights movement began to gather momentum. By the late 1950s, however, only two African-American performers had received Academy Awards. Hattie McDaniel had won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Mammy in Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind (1939), while James Baskett had been presented with an honorary award for his display as Uncle Remus in Disney's live-action/animation hybrid, Song of the South (1948). But, four years after Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress for her vibrant turn in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), Poitier became the first black man to be nominated for Best Actor when he and co-star Tony Curtis were recognised for their partnership in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958). 

Poitier also landed the Silver Bear at Berlin and a BAFTA for this provocative picture about a couple of prisoners who are forced to co-operate after they escape while shackled together. He also received consecutive Golden Globe nominations when he was cited for his performance opposite Dorothy Dandridge in Otto Preminger's take on George Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess (1959). However, this proved to be a fraught project, as not only had producer Sam Goldwyn threatened to sue Poitier for reneging on a verbal contract after he had had second thoughts about the contentious material, but he also felt let down after Rouben Mamoulian was eased out of the director's chair to be replaced by the dictatorial Preminger.

Poitier was also frustrated by the rewrites required to attract a star of the calibre of Alan Ladd to Hal Bartlett's All the Young Men (1960), as this study of integration within the American forces in the Korean War had originally been intended as a starring vehicle. Even though Martin Ritt's Paris Blues (1961) contrasted French and American attitudes towards race, Poitier also felt shortchanged when United Artists ditched the mixed-race romance depicted in Harold Flender's novel and paired Poitier with Diahann Carroll and Paul Newman with Joanne Woodward. 

Poitier demonstrated that African-American families had the same problems as their white counterparts in reprising his stage role in Daniel Petrie's adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1961), while producer Stanley Kramer insisted on casting Poitier as the psychiatrist who treats Nazi sympathiser Bobby Darin in Hubert Cornfield's Pressure Point (1962) to show that black doctors had the best interests of their white patients at heart. Yet his next assignment saw Poitier play a Moorish king competing with Viking Richard Widmark for a fabled golden bell in Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships (1963). But everything was about change with Poitier's next picture. 

Making Oscar History

Cast in Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field (1963) as an itinerant handyman who helps a group of exiled German nuns to build a chapel on their Arizona farm. Poitier added a hint of wry humour to his trademark decency and followed the Best Actor triumph at the Berlin Film Festival with another Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Up against Paul Newman in Martin Ritt's Hud and a trio of Brits - Albert Finney in Tony Richardson's Tom Jones, Rex Harrison in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra and Richard Harris in Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life - he probably felt that he would go home empty-handed again. However, his name was called by Anne Bancroft and Poitier became the first black performer to win the category.

His success gave the studios a problem, however, as Poitier couldn't simply be cast as a standard leading man because his colour immediately put a political spin on any picture in which he appeared. With tensions rising across the United States, it was felt that Poitier could be most usefully employed as the cinematic counterpart to Martin Luther King, with whom he had marched on Washington in August 1963. But, while white audiences admired the way in which Poitier could display dignified defiance without being overtly deferential, radical black audiences dismissed his persona as a white liberal fantasy. 

Poitier was aware of the problem his image created and suspected that his Oscar victory owed as much to Hollywood brandishing its egalitarianism as to the merits of his own performance. Consequently, he took his time before selecting his follow-up role, as a photojournalist aboard Richard Widmark's destroyer in James B. Harris's tense adaptation of Mark Rascovich's Cold War novel, The Bedford Incident (1965). But, following a cameo as Simon of Cyrene in George Stevens's gospel saga, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Poitier returned to playing symbols of non-threatening reassurance as the social worker protecting the sightless Elizabeth Hartman in Guy Green's A Patch of Blue and as a crisis centre volunteer helping the possibly suicidal Anne Bancroft in Sydney Pollack's debut feature, The Slender Thread (both 1965).

Adapted from Elizabeth Kata's novel, Be Ready With Bells and DrumsA Patch of Blue earned Poitier BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. But its message that 'love is blind' seemed trite following the assassination of Malcolm X, an advocate of black self-determination who challenged Dr King's integrationist doctrine. The racial conflict was also somewhat toned down in Ralph Nelson's Duel at Diabolo (1966), a reworking of Marvin H. Albert's novel, Apache Rising, which pitched Poitier into the Wild West for the first time, as a horse breaker who helps cavalry scout James Garner track down the killer of his Comanche wife. 

But Poitier was growing frustrated by the stereotypical parts he was being offered and, in 1966, he turned down the chance to headline an NBC television production of William Shakespeare's Othello. His decision would be vindicated the following year, when he landed three of the most iconic roles of his career, teacher Mark Thackeray in James Clavell's To Sir, With Love, Detective Virgil Tibbs in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night and Dr John Wade Prentice in Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (all 1967). Yet, while these pictures made Poitier Hollywood's most bankable star, they were less warmly received within the African-American community, which had been galvanised and divided by the emergence of the Black Panther Party led by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.

A Man Out of Time

Their radical approach would receive a surge of support following the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968 and this filtered into how African-Americans wished to see themselves depicted on the screen. Consequently, as new film-makers like Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Bill Gunn and documentarist William Greaves sparked the emergence of both an independent black cinema and blaxploitation, Poitier outings like Daniel Mann's For Love of Ivy (1968), Robert Alan Aurthur's The Lost Man (1969) and James Goldstone's Brother John (1970) seemed detached from the tumult surrounding them. 

Even a return to the Oscar-nominated role of Virgil Tibbs failed to pay dividends in Gordon Douglas's They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and Don Medford's The Organisation (1971). But Poitier had provided the story for For Love of Ivy and, when Harry Belafonte fell out with director Joseph Sargent on the Western, Buck and the Preacher (1972), Poitier took over behind the camera and he directed himself again in the romantic drama, A Warm December (1973), and in the action comedy, Uptown Saturday Night (1974).

Having played another African revolutionary opposite Michael Caine in Ralph Nelson's The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), Poitier took up dual duties again in the crime capers Let's Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977), which respectively saw the main characters play innocents pitted against some ruthless gangsters and a pair of petty crooks out of their league. However, the latter proved to be Poitier's last acting role in a decade, as he concentrated on directing Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the prison comedy, Stir Crazy (1980); Wilder and Gilda Radner in the droll thriller, Hanky Panky (1982); a cast of newcomers in the dance drama, Fast Forward (1985); and the whimsical fantasy, Ghost Dad (1990), which drew such negative reviews that Poitier curtailed his directorial activities for good. 

Comeback and Beyond

Returning to the big screen in Roger Spottiswoode's Deadly Pursuit (1988), Poitier played an FBI agent following Kirstie Alley and Tom Berenger in the pursuit of some diamonds stolen by Clancy Brown. He played another Fed in Richard Benjamin's Little Nikita (1988), in which he comes to suspect that River Phoenix's parents are Soviet spies. But, while he reunited with Phoenix to play a former CIA operative in Phil Alden Robinson's conspiracy comedy, Sneakers (1992), Poitier ended his cinematic career as the Deputy Director of the FBI in The Jackal (1997), Michael Caton-Jones's remake of Fred Zinnemann's 1973 adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's bestseller, The Day of the Jackal.

He has appeared in a clutch of documentaries, however, including Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, Goldwyn: The Man and His Movies (both 2001), Tell Them Who You Are (2004), Mr Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2008) and Sing Your Song (2011). Moreover, Poitier has also featured in such TV-movies as David Greene's Children of the Dust (1995), Lloyd Kramer's David and Lisa (1998), Sterling Anderson's The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, Leon Ichaso's Free of Eden (both 1999) and Gregg Champion's The Last Brickmaker in America (2001). But, while he reprised the role of Mark Thackeray in leaving London for Chicago in Peter Bogdanovich's To Sir, With Love 2 (1996), Poitier was more impressive as he landed Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for playing the Supreme Court's first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall, in George Stevens, Jr.'s Separate But Equal (1991), and received another Emmy nod for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela, opposite Michael Caine, in Joseph Sargent's Mandela and De Klerk (1997).

Despite coming close to being prevented from becoming an actor because of his Caribbean burr, Poitier's voice has proved crucial to his success and, having recorded passages of Greek philosophy on the album Poitier Meets Plato (1964), he followed a Grammy nomination for the autobiographical The Measure of a Man (2000) with a win for its sequel, Life Beyond Measure (2008). He has also been presented with a BAFTA Fellowship in 2016 and an Honorary Academy Award in 2002 in recognition of his 'remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being'. 

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1974, Poitier has also served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan (1997-2007) and his country's UNESCO representative (2002-07). In 2009, he received America's highest civilian honour, the Presidential of Freedom, from Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father had been awarded a scholarship from the African American Students Association, which had been founded by Poitier, Belafonte and baseball legend Jackie Robinson. It seemed an apt presentation, as not only had Poitier played Obam in The Mark of the Hawk, but many commentators also considered that his characters had primed white America for its first black president.

  • No Way Out (1950)

    Play trailer
    1h 46min

    Although Lesser Samuels had based his draft story on the experiences of his doctor son-in-law, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz reworked the material to shift the perspective on to Sidney Poitier's rookie medic. He feels the full force of crook Richard Widmark's bigoted bile after his brother dies during a spinal tap administered by Poitier while ministering to the residents of an inner-city slum. Having surprised himself by coming through the audition, Poitier had to withhold the fact that he had added five years to his age to seem sufficiently mature for the role. He also needed the aid of the producers to withdraw from a stage musicalisation of Cry, the Beloved Country, entitled Lost in the Stars. But. while Poitier seized the opportunity to revise the screen impression of the African-American male, the film was barely shown in the southern states and was denounced as seditious by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

    Director:
    Joseph L. Mankiewicz
    Cast:
    Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally
    Genre:
    Drama, Thrillers, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • The Defiant Ones (1958)

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    1h 32min

    Even though it cost him the services of Marlon Brando, director Stanley Kramer was so determined to cast Poitier in this tale of escaped chain gang prisoners that he delayed the production to allow him to finish another project. He then cast Tony Curtis after Robert Mitchum had turned down the role of the bigoted John Jackson because he insisted that black and white prisoners would never be chained together in the Deep South. During the shoot, Curtis developed such a bond with Poitier that he insisted on them sharing equal billing. However, they split the vote at the Academy Awards and allowed David Niven to win Best Actor for what was essentially a glorified supporting turn in Delbert Mann's Separate Tables. Poitier later wrote that Noah Cullen was a key figure in American social history because he afforded 'the black community in general a rare look at a movie character exemplifying the dignity of our people'.

    Director:
    Stanley Kramer
    Cast:
    Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel
    Genre:
    Drama, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

    2h 3min

    Very few plays transfer from stage to screen with their original cast intact, but the principals who had made Lorraine Hansberry's play such a landmark success on Broadway reassembled for Daniel Petrie's film version. This meant that Poitier would once again lock horns with Claudia McNeil, who had fundamentally disagreed with his insistence that the action should focus on the son keen to use an insurance windfall to open a liquor store on the South Side of Chicago rather than on the mother determined to move her family to a better neighbourhood. As Walter Lee Younger also dismissed the ambitions of his sister, Beneathea (Diana Sands), to become a doctor, the film (which took its title from a Langston Hughes poem) explored with unprecedented frankness the gender and generational issues facing African-American families in a prejudicial and patriarchal society. The off-screen tensions fed into the drama, however, which retains its potency and relevancy some six decades later.

    Director:
    Daniel Petrie
    Cast:
    Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee
    Genre:
    Drama, Children & Family, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Lilies of the Field (1963) Piety in the Sky

    1h 31min

    Such is the significance of Poitier's Oscar win that's it's easy to forget that Ralph Nelson's adaptation of William Barrett's 1962 novel was also nominated in three other categories. Austrian actress Lilia Skaia particularly deserved the Best Supporting recognition for her performance as the mother superior of the East German nuns who enlist the help of a wandering handyman to build a chapel on the Arizona farm that had been inherited by their order. There's plenty of sassy wit in the byplay between Mother Maria and war veteran Homer Smith. But the screenplay also touches upon several provocative themes, including the status of the black and Hispanic communities in the American South and the contrast between their plight and that of those trapped behind the newly erected Berlin Wall. Filmed in just 14 days for $450,000, the picture (whose title comes from a line in the Sermon on the Mount) can feel a tad twee. But its underlying sentiment remains unarguably pertinent.

    Director:
    Ralph Nelson
    Cast:
    Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Lisa Mann
    Genre:
    Drama, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD
  • The Bedford Incident (1965)

    1h 38min

    The spirit of Herman Melville's Moby Dick can be felt throughout this unbearably tense adaptation of Mark Raskovich's novel, which was published in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Playing a role in which colour was a factor but not the determining one, Poitier renewed hostilities with Richard Widmark, this time as a newspaper correspondent aboard a US destroyer off the coast of Greenland and the zealously patriotic skipper who insists on pursuing a Soviet submarine against the advice of German NATO observer Eric Portman and the wishes of a crew unconvinced by Widmark's suitability for command. Comparisons were made with Edward Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Robert Wise's Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), as well as such Cold War classics as Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1963) and Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964). But, by changing the ending of the source material, screenwriter James Poe rocked American audiences used to seeing their enemies vanquished.

  • To Sir, with Love (1967)

    Play trailer
    1h 41min

    Race also proved a secondary issue in Australian James Clavell's adaptation of ER Braithwaite's memoir of being a black teacher in the East End of London. On arriving at North Quay Secondary Modern, engineer-turned-educator Mark Thackeray is faced with the disaffection of students who had already been expelled from other schools and abandoned by his colleagues in the staffroom. But, while his colour initially intrigues the kids in his charge, Thackeray wins round the likes of Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson) and Barbara Pegg (Lulu) through a combination of empathy and persistence. However, it takes a more macho approach to convince their surly classmate, Bert Denham (Christian Roberts). The theme tune sung by Lulu topped the US charts for five weeks, as this became one of the UK box-office hits of the decade. By contrast, many African-American critics felt the film soft-soaped the racial subtext and once again shied away from confronting white audiences with stark reality.

    Director:
    James Clavell
    Cast:
    Sidney Poitier, Judy Geeson, Christian Roberts
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections, Classics
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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    1h 45min

    Although Rod Steiger won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his scowling performance as Sparta police chief Bill Gillespie, the moment most people remember in Norman Jewison's simmering, Best Picture-winning adaptation of John Ball's novel is when Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) returns with interest the slap across the face given him by small-town bigot, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates). Yet, despite breaking taboos in almost every scene, Stirling Silliphant's Oscar-winning screenplay avoided stereotypes in order to present a chillingly realistic insight into the reception that an educated, well-dressed black man could expect on becoming a murder suspect in a southern backwater. Having been harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, Poitier was reluctant to film below the Mason-Dixon Line. But the insistence on shooting in authentic locations proved as wise as the decision to let Steiger and Poitier improvise the scene in which the illiberal lawman confides that he can't solve the case without the outsider's help.

    Director:
    Norman Jewison
    Cast:
    Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates
    Genre:
    Drama, Thrillers, Classics, Collections
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

    Play trailer
    1h 44min

    Half a century after its release, Stanley Kramer's inter-racial romance remains contentious. It felt like an insult to many embroiled in the 165 race riots that had erupted across the United States during the same year that witnessed the legal decision outlawing miscegenated marriages (which was recalled in Jeff Nichols's Loving, 2016). Yet the majority of mainstream critics recognised Kramer and screenwriter William Rose's efforts to challenge liberal Americans to practice what they preached. Poitier is impeccable, as the widowed doctor who proposes to Katharine Houghton during a whirlwind romance in Hawaii and seeks the consent of her parents before whisking her off to Switzerland. Yet, notwithstanding his urbanity and respectability, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are concerned that the couple will be punished for their passion by those on either side of the racial divide. Tracy would die weeks after completing his scenes, while Hepburn would win her third Oscar. But, despite its good intenstions, this continues to divide opinion.

    Director:
    Stanley Kramer
    Cast:
    Spencer Tracy, June Whitley Taylor, Sidney Poitier
    Genre:
    Drama, Collections, Classics, Romance
    Availability:
    DVD, Blu-ray
  • Buck and the Preacher (1972)

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    1h 39min

    Although Hollywood had been producing revisionist views of frontier life since Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher had fashioned the 'psychological Western' in the 1950s, few film-makers had focused on the lot of the freed slaves who had been promised 40 acres and a mule by Unionist general William Sherman during the Civil War. So, when Poitier and co-star Harry Belafonte realised that journeyman director Joseph Sargent was missing the nuances in Ernest Kinoy's account of the relationship between the African-American and Native American populations in the postbellum era, they informed Columbia that Poitier was going to take the helm until a suitable replacement could be found. Visiting executives were so satisfied with his work, however, that he was allowed to continue calling the shots and playing the ex-soldier who agrees to lead a wagon train across Louisiana and enlists the help of Belafonte's bogus cleric to help him resist the thugs hired by some bigoted and embittered plantation owners.

  • Sneakers (1992)

    Play trailer
    2h 0min

    Proving Poitier to be a dependable team player, Phil Alden Robinson's codebreaking thriller feels quaintly antiquated, as it harks back to a pre-Internet era when information wasn't at everyone's fingertips. As an ex-CIA agent with a keen eye and a short fuse, Poitier forms part of the security testing company run by Robert Redford, whose radical past catches up with him and forces him to undertake a risky mission for the National Security Agency. It soon becomes clear, however, that the NSA has nothing to do with the bid to purloin a top-secret decoding device and Redford, Poitier and sidekicks Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn and River Phoenix discover that the real villain is Redford's old college nemesis, Ben Kingsley. Mary McDonnell has an amusing scene seducing nerdy engineer Stephen Tobolowsky. But this is a 'boys and their toys' movie that leaves one wondering why nobody thought of teaming Poitier and Redford in their 1960s heyday.

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