Odd Man Out (1947)
Directed by Carol Reed
116 min.; United Kingdom; Black and White; Mono
After viewing Carol Reed's atmospheric crime drama Odd Man Out (1947) I'm convinced that the director's first major post-war feature is every bit as visually rich and engrossing as its more famous sibling, The Third Man (1949), if not even more so. In the film Johnny McQueen (James Mason), the fugitive chief of an "illegal organization" (read: the Irish Republican Army) operating in "a city of Northern Ireland" (read: Belfast), leads a robbery at a linen mill to finance the organization's operations. Safe house operator Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), whose unspoken love for Johnny is apparent to everyone but him, and his lieutenant Dennis (Robert Newton) predict that after nearly a year in prison and in hiding following his escape Johnny is no longer emotionally equipped to lead the raid. He brushes off their objections but, as predicted, Johnny suffers a breakdown during the getaway phase of the robbery and is assaulted by one of the mill's cashiers armed with a pistol. In the struggle, he kills the man and is mortally wounded himself then left behind by his fleeing comrades. Hearing the grave news, Kathleen searches for a way to rescue Johnny while he, delirious and slowly bleeding to death, struggles to hide out in the city backstreets and avoid a police dragnet. Amidst these dual story lines we encounter a number of colorful city dwellers and are introduced to their own conflicts. However, our prime concern is the fate of Johnny and Kathleen who are trapped in parallel downward spiraling trajectories edging ever nearer toward each other and ultimate destruction.
The film is based on F.L. Green's 1945 novel of the same name. Green was born in England but relocated to Belfast in 1934. After reading the novel, director Carol Reed travelled to Belfast to discuss a film version with the author and subsequently they worked on the script together. As part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by U.K. companies to secure major distribution of British prestige pictures in America after the war, this motion picture benefits from prestige level funding, an extended shooting schedule, and a genuine box office star in James Mason. According to John Hill, Professor of Media at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), Odd Man Out was also the "first major fiction feature to deal with the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland since partition" (Hill 124). Hill's research places the picture within the rocky political and cultural context of post-war Northern Ireland--a context that the filmmakers are purposefully vague about in the movie even as they find creative ways to acknowledge it. For Hill, the "de-contextualizing aesthetic tends to reinforce previously existing views of the 'troubles' as largely inexplicable" (126). I would venture to add that the de-contextualization also tends to open the film up to a wider, universal appeal. Cinephiles don't necessarily have to hail from Ireland or be well-versed in the history and politics of the conflict between unionists and nationalists to be moved by the picture. In truth, both the history and the film itself fascinate me. So, while I continue reading Hill's excellent book I'll share eight things I admire about Odd Man Out...
1. Crosstown Traffic. In some parts of the film director Carol Reed appears to have been influenced by the documentary style realism affecting the look and feel of contemporary Italian neorealism and American semidocumentary crime dramas, and he shot some scenes of Odd Man Out on location in Belfast and around London. In the scene that provides the screencap above we follow a black car around the streets as it picks up Johnny and his comrades before the robbery at the mill. Shooting on the street means giving up some level of control. We can almost hear the director shouting at the man on the bicycle, "No! Don't look at the camera! Sir, don't look at the camera!...Ahh, CUT!"
2. A Poetic Vision of the North. If the daylight scenes of
Belfast "a city of Northern Ireland" reflect a documentary style realism then by nightfall we discover Reed experimenting with a kind of poetic realism too. Casual fans of the pre-war French style (like me) might suspect some sections of Odd Man Out to be the work of famous set designer Alexandre Trauner because Reed and his team imagine a city of rain-soaked avenues, softly glowing windows, lonely figures, shiny wet cobblestones, and brick walls alternately drenched in pools of darkness and restrained light reminiscent of Trauner's and director Marcel Carne's version of La Havre in Le Quai des brumes (1938). The result is a mysterious, abundantly dark urban evironment that threatens to envelope Johnny and deepens our understanding of his sense of alienation and despair.
3. James Mason as Johnny McQueen. At one point in the film Kathleen says that she'll fend off the police inquiries by "giving them a dose of silence." But, if there's one nearly silent role in the film it's that of Johnny McQueen played by James Mason. As he spends the majority of this film alone or drifting in and out of consciousness Mason has to play worried, wounded, delirious, suffering, resisting, hopeless, and all the rest of the anti-hero's trials with little in the way of dialogue. A less talented actor wouldn't be able to hold our interest for the length of the film, but the result here is terrific. Aided and abetted by star power, Mason emotes with body, posture, facial expressions, eyes, and any number of small gestures...I didn't realize how much I've missed this style of acting since this blog turned the sync sound corner back in 1928 and everyone began talking all the time. :D
4. Euphemisms Galore. The great irony, and the great achievement, in the writing of Odd Man Out for the screen is that the story takes place within the political milieu of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland yet the conflict and those involved are not referred to directly. More, the film is all about a wounded Irish Reblican Army chief on the run in Belfast but the city and the IRA are not mentioned. An opening title scroll states that the film isn't about politics at all, and refers to the IRA only as "an illegal organization." As the film continues we find the screenwriters scratching their heads for more alternative ways to refer to it: "our organization in this city," "his friends," "headquarters," "your people," "the boys," "his own crowd," etc.
5. Not Exactly Our Gang. Midway through the picture, Johnny's lieutenant, the tough and clever Dennis, is searching the backstreets for his chief when he suddenly finds himself confronted by a rabble of noisy children who shake him down for money and cigarettes. When the big bad rebel soldier tells them to back off or he'll call the police they respond, "there ain't no police 'round here! Mister, give us a penny!" The scene is played for dark humor, but it recalls stories of poverty stricken children surviving post-war Europe in contemporary films like Germany Year Zero (1948) and Somewhere in Europe (1947).
6. The Streets of Northern Noir. In one of my favorite sequences from the film, Dennis draws the police after him to allow Johnny to avoid a barricade. The ensuing chase is filmed in expressionist style lighting with long shadows trailing after figures darting through alleyways at night (see image top of post). This sequence visually mines a rich dark vein of suspense that I find reminiscent of Fritz Lang's moody thriller M (1931). Notice how the fascinating shot above opens up screen space by breaking the frame into various horizontal and vertical spaces that imply height, width, and aid the illusion depth in the image. The leading lines work with the dynamic lighting to bring our eyes to the silhouetted policeman pursuing Dennis from the cobblestone street on the left side of the image. Meanwhile, vertical lines on the right side of the image lead our eyes up from the street to Dennis' own shadowy form running on the scaffold in the extreme right. These elements combine with the running actors and supply a sense of tense action and pursuit.
7. Tripping with Johnny. Not content with creating realistic views of Belfast, poetic images of that same city at night, or expressionistic chase sequences, Reed also experiments with revealing his anti-hero's damaged internal reality through chaotic jerky camera, extreme and even impossible perspectives, superimposed imagery, and canted camera in an increasingly bizarre series of hallucinations. Johnny's mental troubles range from a brief spell of disorientation in the car ride to the robbery that looks like an outtake from Rene Clair's Entr'act (1924) to a famous confrontation with talking bubbles in a puddle of beer much later in the film. I prefer an equally surreal scene in which the wounded protagonist is confronted by hallucinations of a mute Father Tom and a gallery of grotesque portraits. In response, the delirious Johnny recalls Father Tom's preaching and, in Mason's thunderous voice, recites some of the finest lines from the thirteenth chapter of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians.
8. Kathleen's Courage Equal to Desire (spoiler alert). The final fate of Johnny McQueen is decided not by the rebel chieftain himself, but by Kathleen. Throughout the film everyone Johnny runs across wants to use him to his own advantage; they help Johnny because they fear his organization or they refuse to help him because they fear the police. Only Kathleen wants to do something for him. She hints to Father Tom that she wants to protect Johnny in this world and beyond. As screen love affairs go theirs is an entirely off screen affair, and may only exist in her mind. They don't appear together as a couple until the final scene of the film and even then they consummate their relationship through an act of martyrdom. Kathleen's expressed desire to love and protect Johnny is matched by her courage to commit the ultimate act of sacrifice--a decision she makes for them both.