By Tim Pelan
I liked the novel and went to Belfast to ask F. L. Green if he’d work on the script. It took only a month to write. We merely took the book and joined certain sections. Green had never worked on a script before. He had a gramophone; he couldn’t write unless it was playing. I like the theme of someone who had done something wrong for the right reasons—and the incidental characters. —Carol Reed
Belfast exists in popular myth as a hardened state of mind. In their introduction to the Belfast Noir short story anthology, authors Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville state that, “Despite its relative newness as a city, Belfast has a rich psychogeography: on virtually every street corner and in nearly every pub and shop something terrible happened within living memory. Belfast is a place where the denizens have trained themselves not to see these scars of the past, rather like the citizens of Beszel in China Miéville’s novel The City & the City.” In Odd Man Out (1947) adapted by Carol Reed from the original 1945 novel by Belfast adopted son F. L. Green (Reed and Green worked on a screenplay, final credit going to British playwright R. C. Sheriff), an armed raid on a linen mill payroll by the IRA and its feverish aftermath adroitly reflects this notion of “looking the other way.” The IRA is referred to coyly as “the Organization,” the local command under James Mason’s Johnny McQueen, who against advice personally leads the raid. The film encompasses many influences—neorealist working-class documentary in its early Belfast set street scenes (“This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland,” an opening insert obfuscates); poetic realism in its studio-bound aspects and fatalism; noir thriller; and expressionist reimagining of Greek myth, as a fatally wounded Johnny is left behind in the botched escape and a rogue’s gallery of the city’s denizens alternately help and hinder his path through the Underworld entries, bars and rain-slicked slums of a darkened, almost Dickensian city. It may not have gumshoes or femme fatales in the strictest sense, although Johnny’s girl Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) who tracks him down in the swirling snowy winds whisper beneath the city’s iconic Albert Clock, its sweeping hands harbingers of their doom, has clouded motives.
“Carol could put a film together like a watchmaker puts together a watch,” admired contemporary English director Michael Powell. Odd Man Out shares a few surface similarities to its more famous (polished?) and lauded follow-up, The Third Man (although Odd Man Out did win a BAFTA for best British film), but has it existed too long in its shadow? Has its serious tone and “provincial” setting marked it down in sense memory in comparison to the playful mischief of its Austrian cousin? Noir permeates Odd Man Out—cinematographer Robert Krasker’s deep use of chiaroscuro lighting (Krasker also lensed The Third Man, winning the Oscar for it); blue-collar conspirators; a woman who stands by her lover, regardless of his crimes; and the criminal protagonist haunted by his actions yet stubbornly following his own path. Michael Sragow writes for the Criterion edition that Krasker “fills his nightscapes with wraithlike shadows and dazzling illuminations. He achieves amazing depth of field without the sharp, clean contours we associate with depth of focus; draping Reed’s people in mists or spotting them in streetlights and headlamps, outlining them in doorways or profiling them against window shades, Krasker conjures an atmosphere that a viewer’s eyes sift excitedly.”
Get past the phony soft Dublin accents from many of the main cast, some of whom were stalwarts of that city’s Abbey Players—their coarseness should be harsh on the tongue and ear, like a stiff drink in a rowdy Belfast boozer—and Odd Man Out is a transcendent example of the heist gone wrong film: a manhunt across eight hours of a bitingly cold November night with a poetic, haunting snowscape finale that some say surpasses Reed and Krasker’s later Viennese whirl, The Third Man. Roman Polanski has oft stated that “I still consider it as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and a film which made me want to pursue this career more than anything else… I always dreamt of doing things of this sort or that style. To a certain extent I must say that I somehow perpetuate the ideas of that movie in what I do.”
The use of lighting and composition in the darkened streets is superlative. At one point, fellow gang member Dennis (Robert Beatty) hunts for Johnny before the police can get to him. His figure, overcoat billowing, runs down a choked cobbled backstreet angling towards an unseen light source, a solitary streetlamp in the middle distance dominating center frame, two children swinging from it on ropes. A shadowed area picked out would seem to indicate where Johnny is hiding. When Dennis misses it and turns tail, pursued himself, the aspect flips to the other end of the street as Johnny emerges. Krasker doesn’t cheat by reversing the light source, instead now the children are in a hazy gloom. Pursuing coppers are revealed only by their elongated shadows rippling across brick buildings, authentic, hardened faces fearfully drawing their blinds against the troubled terraces. The shot of gang members hurtling down a narrow entry, shadows stretched ahead of them on the rain-slicked bricks anticipates many of the night-time pursuits from The Third Man on the streets of Vienna and below in its sewers. A rattling disturbed bin lid is stilled just as the hunters pass their quarry hiding in someone’s yard. Yann Demange’s ’71, about a British soldier left behind in the chaos of a botched house raid in early Troubles Belfast, also owes it a debt.
For a face that loves the camera—dark, dark eyes, a brooding brow and tumbling forelock that draws the viewer into Johnny’s doubts and fears—Mason is introduced sotto voce off-screen, in a lilting brogue. Perhaps there’s something to be said for that softness though—his character, holed up for months in a two-up, two-down terrace after a prison break, is experiencing doubts about the cause, even as he plans to lead the raid. Bill Fairchild described Mason as a man who spoke quietly in a noisy world and as having a voice that “will be remembered by millions who never knew him.” Just as even the dog in the street yapping at his heels and the urchins that play with wooden guns–real “Angels With Dirty Faces” from West Belfast’s St Patrick’s Boys Home know of Johnny McQueen, and all vie to “be him,” or run with him. This film is both about him and not about him, supporting players thrust into the spotlight instead, talking about this mythical figure on the loose. Mike D’Angelo for The A.V. Club admiringly called the notion of treating Mason in this way, at this time the most popular British actor four years in a row, as “a masterstroke… It took some foolhardy nerve to structure those ideas around a movie star who’s little more than furniture in his own movie.” Richard Burton recalled in his diaries that Stewart Granger was first sent the script by Reed. According to Burton, he decided the part wasn’t big enough. “He didn’t notice the stage directions so turned it down and James Mason played it instead and made a career out of it. It’s probably the best thing that Mason has ever done and certainly the best film he’s ever been in while poor Granger has never been in a good classic film at all. Or, as far as I remember, in a good film of any kind. You could after all have a ‘James Mason Festival’ but you couldn’t have a ‘Stewart Granger’ one. Except as a joke. Granger tells the story ruefully against himself.”
“Your heart’s not in this job, Johnny, is it?” a comrade surmises. Johnny is weakened from enforced confinement whilst on the run and suffers from dizzy spells, blinking on the steps of the mill in the low winter light and taking a bullet during a scuffle. The film is about a divided city, no matter the tip-toeing around of the censorious sensibilities of the time. At one point he stumbles into the path of a lorry—he’s not hit, but collapses, and two women, Maureen and Maudie, bring him into their parlor for first aid, learned via the ARP (Air Raid Precautions). Even after they discover the bullet wound, they continue to treat him, albeit cautiously. “I shouldn’t like to interfere with that,” Maureen counsels Maudie, speaking of not just the severity of the wound, but the undeclared war that has just turned up in their home. Johnny overhears an argument between the women and Maureen’s returning husband about what to do with him, discovering to his dismay that he killed the security man in the robbery, and leaves them in peace.
It’s also heavily symbolic, drenched in religious imagery and, as in the journey of Christ to the cross, “the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” (that intro again). Most everything from Johnny’s subjective view is a vision or hallucination of some sort. A child’s heavy leather football thumps into the brick air raid shelter where he takes refuge. A solemn young girl with one roller skate, the other “odd one out” from the rowdy kids at play in the street, chases it and seems to dissolve and grow into a prison guard looming now over Johnny in his cell. Shades of the later multi-layered John Boorman thriller Point Blank—is the whole film a dying man’s reflections on his arrested life?
The film is full of crosses, betrayers, apostles and innkeepers. A “weeping” angel is framed in the rain behind Shell (F. J. McCormick), the street scavenger with a fondness for birds who flits about trying to make something from this clipped bird, abandoned by Hackney cab driver Gin Jimmy (Joseph Tomelty) in a scrap yard bathtub after dithering over what best to do. “I’m not for ya, I’m not against ya, but I can’t afford to get mixed up in this.” And, “If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell’em I helped ya. But if the police get ya, ya won’t mention my name, huh?”
“He goes to the right buyer,” hops Shell to himself, Fagin-like upon the discovery. He’s Judas to Johnny’s Jesus. Christ was also seen by some as a political rebel, and Johnny is pushed and pulled between faith and force—Father Tom (W. G. Fay) wants Johnny back in the fold, redeemed, repentant. Soldiers toss him into Jimmy’s cab, laughing that “he’s tight,” like Roman legionaries mocking the “King of the Jews,” not recognizing the most wanted man in Belfast. The Inspector (Denis O’Dea) is immovable but not implacable—“In my position, father, there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That’s all.”
Both saints and scholars also, and a Garden of Gethsemane moment in a shambolic artist’s studio, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s crumbling pile, where the tired, drawn desperado is tested. Johnny’s wounds are attended to by a failed medical student, Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones). While he and Lukey, the loquacious artist, played with eye-rolling relish by Robert Newton, bicker with the saucer-eyed Shell over the fate of Johnny, Lukey’s paintings seem to drift from the walls, a congregation of contrition or condemnation, the distraught Johnny not knowing which. He cries out blindly from Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels… though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all… knowledge… and have not charity, I am nothing.” (Although a good Catholic would not be quoting the King James Bible version). A startled Lukey, who seeks to emulate the great Renaissance painters who painted Jesus and capture the leaving of the spirit in this dying man’s eyes, misunderstands this moment of divinity. Saint Paul wrote Corinthians so “that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you.” Another not so subtle reference to the divided city.
And, of course, there is the famous bar sequence in renowned Belfast hostelry The Crown Liquor Saloon, known in the film as The Four Winds. Not actually filmed on location, instead the interior faithfully recreated at D&P Studios in Denham, Buckinghamshire. Gimlet-eyed Publican Fencie (William Hartnell) quickly conceals a stumbled-in Johnny in a snug, while he works out how to get him past the packed house. Nobody wants Johnny on their hands, nor does anyone want word to get back to The Organization that they were responsible for turning him in. Johnny drifts in and out of consciousness, knocking over his stout, the bubbles surreally transforming to reveal a shimmering series of faces of those he has encountered during his travails. At this point he lets out a crazed heart sore wail that pierces the bar’s hubbub like a banshee’s keening of his fate to be. This is where Lukey first discovers him after Shell tracks him down (sniffing a discarded bandage like a bloodhound). A scene of mayhem is engineered to facilitate Fencie calling time and a cab for the artist and his reluctant model.
It may not seem an obvious comparison, but Odd Man Out has a touch of the Sergio Leone spaghetti western about it. Timepieces and leitmotifs play a large part in the drama, just as a pocket watch and musical chime trigger action and flashbacks for Leone’s western warriors. Composer William Alwyn, working with Reed from the script, composed the score and individual themes for the film before shooting, much like Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In the West. Mason had to match his walking rhythm to that of the music. The film begins and ends with close-ups of the Albert Clock face, towering impassively over the fates of the compromised citizenry. The robbery is timed to its 4.00 PM chimes. The clock counts down the hours to its final close-up at midnight, the final shot of the film. Fencie has the pub’s clock hands swept forward to chucking out time when the brawl begins. Kathleen has planned an escape for Johnny by ship, but the tide will be out by midnight if she doesn’t find him fast.
Like many working-class Belfast women, Kathleen is ultimately stronger than her man. She loves him and confides without fear to the priest that she’d kill them both to save him from the gallows. In the end, finally tracking him down beneath the clock, this is ultimately a sin too far (or a cop-out by the filmmakers to the censors of the time). The police are closing fast as the snow thickens and falls. She shoots, committing “suicide by police” and sealing their fate in a lovers death embrace. Recalling James Joyce’s The Dead, Johnny’s finally at peace soul “swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: F.L. Green & R.C. Sherriff screenplay for Odd Man Out [Scriptsread]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
ENCOUNTERING DIRECTORS: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL REED
An interview with Carol Reed, Encountering Directors by Charles Thomas Samuels (1972).
Radio adaptation of the film from 1952, starring Mason and Dan O’Herlihy.
ROBERT KRASKER, MASTER OF LIGHT
Robert Krasker, BSC, ASC, collected a no-contest Academy Award for photographing Carol Reed’s The Third Man and was worshipped by his collaborators (including actors: Terence Stamp called him the “J.M.W. Turner of light”). But collaborating with directorial heavyweights like Carol Reed, David Lean, Luchino Visconti, William Wyler, and Anthony Mann has arguably consigned his name to the fine print of film history. —Robert Krasker, Master of Light
Cinematographer Robert Krasker was a Perth-born Australian who arrived in Britain in 1932 via photographic studies in Paris and Dresden, and found work at Korda’s London Films, where he became senior camera operator, usually for Georges Périnal. After two shared cinematographer credits, he had his first solo stint on The Gentle Sex (d. Leslie Howard, 1943), and spent the rest of the 1940s lighting such honoured films as the Technicolor triumph of Henry V (d. Laurence Olivier, 1944), as Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1945), Odd Man Out (d. Carol Reed, 1947) and The Third Man (d. Reed, 1949), for which his magisterial black-and-white images, often unnervingly tilted, brought him an Oscar. In this notable trio of films, his camera work is as crucial an element as any in establishing their film noir affiliations, observational realism constantly in tension with the rendering of anguished inner states. Virtually everything he did was notable, whether evoking Renaissance Verona in Romeo and Juliet (UK/Italy, d. Renato Castellani, 1954), the harsh black-and-white realities of The Criminal (d. Joseph Losey, 1960), or the epic sweep of El Cid (US/Italy, d. Anthony Mann, 1961), in 70mm Technirama, one of the several international films he photographed. He shot his last feature, the Canadian-set, The Trap (d. Sidney Hayers) in 1966, after which he retired because of ill-health. —Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema
‘Deconstructing Cinematography’ series features Ben Smithard examining the Carol Reed British film noir Odd Man Out.
JAMES MASON: THE STAR THEY LOVED TO HATE
Retrospective of the life and work of actor James Mason.
Home, James, a 1972 documentary featuring actor James Mason revisiting his hometown.
James Mason interview (1972).
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. Photographed by Davis Boulton © Two Cities Films. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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