Saturday, March 17, 2012

Odd Man Out


An Irish theme for St. Patrick's Day. Sláinte!

By the time he produced and directed Odd Man Out in 1947, which inaugurated the great flourish of his talent that lasted until Our Man in Havana in 1959, Carol Reed had become the most highly regarded film director in England. He rose to prominence just as Hitchcock was answering the call of Hollywood, and made his mark with The Stars Look Down and The Way Ahead (1944).

Odd Man Out is a giant leap forward for Reed and has many fine points, especially in its use of exteriors that give it a powerful sense of place (Belfast, Northern Ireland), and it would be regarded as a masterpiece if it had been made by someone else. But Reed was just getting started.

Johnny McQueen (beautifully played by James Mason) belongs to an "organization" that is never named, but is the Irish Republican Army. The time of the film was "now", 1947, so the Republic of Ireland didn't yet exist (it was created two years later), so their struggle against the British was still a national one, even if the British Commonwealth would retain the six counties of the North. Johnny is the leader of a small group that rob a bank in broad daylight early in the film. Johnny, who has spent all his time indoors for weeks after his escape from jail, grows dizzy in the openness and sunshine of the morning of the robbery, gets into a scuffle with a bank employee while trying to escape and is shot in the shoulder. Johnny shoots dead the man who shot him, but when his compatriots try to escape in a car, he falls into the street. Wounded, he runs into a hiding place. The remainder of the film is about Johnny's flight from the police and from people who seek to betray him.

Forty years ago, Charles Thomas Samuels, who was an admirer Reed's work, accused the film of slipping into melodrama. The scenes of Johnny's dementia are visually inventive (like seeing faces in the bubbles of spilled beer), but dramatically unnecessary. They come to a climax in the scene in Lukey's (Robert Newton's) flat when Johnny, surrounded by Lukey's lurid paintings of saints and prophets, rises to his feet and spouts scripture:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-2)

The symbolism is certainly present, but Reed doesn't push it as much as John Ford did in the similar film, The Informer (1935), which pushes the religious symbolism of Gypo's betrayal of another IRA member to preposterous extremes. Johnny McQueen quotes Saint Paul, and certainly British audiences would never have bought into the equation of an IRA outlaw with Christ. What pushes the film into melodrama is the plodding and lugubrious music (by William Alwyn), which sets the tone of tragedy to which the film never gets close.

But Odd Man Out's place in Reed's development is important, as a dress rehearsal for The Third Man (1949). Reed's cinematographer, the great Robert Krasker (Henry V, Brief Encounter, et al) worked on both Odd Man Out and The Third Man, and the streets scenes of Belfast at night are highly suggestive of similar scenes in bombed-out, partitioned Vienna. The plots are similar - a man on the run from the police, his long-suffering girlfriend, a final gun-battle in which he is killed. Even the titles are similar.

Odd Man Out won the BAFTA for Best British Film of 1948. Reed was nominated for a Golden Lion at Venice. He followed it with his first collaboration with Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol (1948). Then came The Third Man, and Outcast of the Islands (1951). Reed's rise to artistry was gradual but steady, and his best years were brief. His graduation to superproductions in the 1960s mirrored that of his British contemporary, David Lean. Lean had his moments (Oliver Twist, Lawrence of Arabia), but Reed was the finer artist.

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