Monday, July 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Odd Man Out" (1947)

Before "The Third Man" and "The Man Between" -- the latter of which also starred James Mason and was featured in this column a few months ago -- director Carol Reed made "Odd Man Out."

This film influenced and was influenced by American film noir, especially the first act where some IRA gunmen rob a mill and the getaway is botched. But the movie grows progressively more dream-like and surreal, and becomes less about the heist than one man's stumbling walkabout through the seedy side of Belfast.

Mason plays Johnny McQueen, local chief of the IRA -- though the film itself is careful never to directly label it so. Officially, the film is neutral about "the troubles," even going so far as to proclaim in a title card that it is only concerned with the innocent people caught in the fray.

But with the noble struggle of Johnny and those who help him, assisted by the sinister, steely presence of the police inspector (Denis O'Dea) on his trail, it's not difficult to see where the film's true sentiments lie.

"Odd Man Out" was based on the novel by F.L. Green, who co-wrote the script with veteran film scribe R.C. Sherriff.

Johnny, having holed up in a house for six months after escaping from prison, leads the heist to fill the coffers of the organization despite the protest of his men that he's gone soft. He insists on going anyway, rebuffing the warnings of Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan, in her first screen role), the woman who runs the house where he lives, and who clearly has fallen in love with him.

Sure enough, Johnny swoons during the job and is wounded by one of the guards at the mill, shooting the man dead in return. The getaway car driver speeds away too fast before Johnny is pulled all the way in, and he falls out. The accomplices drive on, leaving him to his fate.

At this point the movie takes an odd turn. Shot in the shoulder and slowly oozing life, Johnny becomes the object of a massive manhunt by both the police and locals interested in turning him in for the reward money of 1,000 pounds. A few people help him, or at least see him on his way before they get into trouble themselves.

Two middle-aged women help Johnny into their house and start to dress his wounds, but when the man of the house returns home and they start squabbling about whether to turn him in, Johnny slips out the door.

He falls asleep in a horse-drawn cab, which by chance carries him safely through the police checkpoint. One copper, familiar with the old cabbie, asks him who he's got in the back, and the fellow sarcastically replies, "Johnny!" They share a laugh and the cab is let by.

The cabbie later deposits a delirious Johnny in a lumber yard, where he's discovered by Shell (F.J. McCormick), a mousy old hobo. Shell would love to turn him in for the reward, but is cagey enough to know the IRA would target him for collaboration. Instead, he turns to the local priest, Father Tom (W.G. Fay). They have a long rambling conversation about Shell's compensation for bringing Johnny in, which Father Tom insists will be a greater reward in Heaven rather than a monetary one.

As things turn out, Johnny ends up at the dilapidated building where Shell lives with two other men. The three argue about his fate as Johnny slips in and out of consciousness.

Shell wants to receive something for turning Johnny in, he doesn't care to whom. Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones), a failed doctor, fixes up Johnny's arm but insists that he'll die without a blood transfusion at a hospital, which of course would mean his capture. Most extreme is Lukey (Robert Newton), a mad painter who wants to capture Johnny's dying moments on canvas.

Meanwhile, Kathleen roams the streets looking for Johnny. She's arranged passage on a boat overseas where they can be together, away from the troubles.

What's interesting about this rotating circus of strange characters is that everyone wants to get their hands on Johnny for their own, ultimately selfish purposes.

Shell wants a reward; Lukey wants to create art out of death; Tober wants to use wasted medical skills to save his body; the inspector wants to see justice satisfied by Johnny's execution; even Father Tom is less concerned with Johnny's fate than with saving his soul, offering him a chance for a final confession of his sins.

The only person who truly cares about Johnny, the whole of his body and soul, is Kathleen.

Things end gruesomely. Kathleen finally finds Johnny near the harbor, near death. She struggles to help him to their escape as the police close in. Realizing they won't make it, and rather than let the authorities carry out their judgment, Kathleen shoots at the ground, forcing the police to return fire, killing them both. (In the novel, she shoots Johnny herself, but this ending wouldn't pass muster with the censors.)

I really enjoyed the dark atmospheric cinematography, and a wonderful, large cast. The movie kind of wanders away from itself in the second half, but I mostly enjoyed the places where it rambled.

3 stars out of four

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