Odd Man Out (1947)

Here's a strange one. Often it's hard to disagree with the broad critical consensus on a particular film. You might take issue with a few points here and there and some films certainly fall out of fashion but generally it's rare to come across a piece of work that bears so little relation to the reputation it is has acquired. However, I'd say Odd Man Out by Carol Reed is one such due a reassessment. Usually lauded as a masterpiece for Robert Krasker's lush cinematography and the strained performance of James Mason that carries the film, this British noir does have its good points but is also maddeningly ponderous, poorly paced and overlong.

Set amongst the rubble and labyrinthine cobbled terraces of an unnamed Northern Irish city (unnamed, but still Belfast), Reed's camera swoops low over the battered rooftops and eventually settles on a figure perched in a first floor window. This is Johnny McQueen (Mason), an IRA gunman escaped from prison and plotting a major heist. Physically weakened by his six months in hiding, Johnny's fitness for the task is the subject of some doubt amongst the other members of his gang. Sure enough, the raid is bungled when Johnny brawls with and kills a security guard, taking a bullet himself during the scuffle. Wounded, he falls out of the getaway car and is left lying in the road with police sirens blaring close by. His accomplices bicker over whether or not to go back for him but eventually decide against it, agreeing to resume the search later. A wanted fugitive, Johnny spends a long dark night of the soul wandering the streets, bleeding and delirious, trying to evade capture. If only his sweetheart, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), can get to him first...

I went into Odd Man Out expecting a pacy, brooding crime thriller from the director of The Third Man (1949). And for the first 45 minutes or so, that's exactly what you get. But as soon as the snow starts to fall, the film becomes a drawn-out, dreamlike picaresque in which one oddball character after another is introduced to no particular end. Two nurses, a kindly cab driver, a panicky bartender, a crazed artist and a bowler hatted tramp (Cyril Cusack, more Beckett than Chaplin) all come into contact with the fallen idol and variously dither, argue and scheme about what to do with him. None come anywhere near a resolution. Only the redoubtable Kathleen proactively attempts to carve out an escape route for Johnny and her game of cat-and-mouse with a suspicious detective is the film's only real source of suspense.

There are interesting episodes. A police chase across flimsy scaffolding in the rain involving fellow hood Dennis (Robert Beatty) is much more like it and when the end finally does come for Johnny, corned at the docks in Kathleen's arms, it's almost too abrupt to savour. Krasker also pulls off some inventive hallucination effects, as when Johnny starts to see faces in a bubbling puddle of beer, though even these smack of gimmickry. Ultimately, too many characters serve no purpose, too many scenes overrun. Why, for instance, have Kathleen rendez-vous with a sailor to arrange an 11 o'clock passage for Johnny aboard his ship, only to then have her go back again later and ask for an hour's extension when she can't find him? Why not just make it midnight in the first place and keep the tension up and the narrative rolling to a deadline? Odd Man Out raises several such questions and exposes the vital part Graham Greene's source story obviously played in bringing structural discipline to The Third Man. Even the all-action heist is laboured and implausible here.

Only blind goodwill towards Reed and his star could lead normally miserly reviewers to hail a film so flawed and paunchy. Mason, an actor so urbane as to make Cary Grant look like a dishevelled deadbeat, does well with a part that asks audiences to side with a terrorist (though the film is otherwise at pains to avoid the politics of its setting). By the close, our long exposure to Johnny's agony means he starts to resemble a kind of rogue martyr, St. Sebastian backed up against the railings. The man's dignity is something else. Which is a great deal more than can be said for the hammy Robert Newton (a popular Long John Silver in his day) whose turn as the bohemian drunk obsessed with committing Johnny's fading inner light to canvas is as overblown as it is surplus to the story. And what's the crack with that surly doctor he pals around with? Most vexing.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with almost all you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it. Is that too rogue-martyrish of me? The thing is, I love this movie, it's one of the best -- ever. What I see in your review is that you wanted this to be -- as you call it -- a "pacy" and brooding crime thriller like "The Third Man." Truly it's not. I think the Third Man is tricky and mechanical and the zither music makes me crazy. I feel Odd Man Out's intention was to be a melancholy character study, not a fast-paced thriller. You have a lot of company in disliking it.....the times I've read that it is a distant third in artistic value to "The Third Man" and "Fallen Idol" are numberless.

    I love it though, as I have said. For the same reasons you dislike it: Mason's performance as a heart-breaking Christ-like figure. The plangent interludes, backed by the haunting and unrelenting musical score. The ending is not too "abrupt to savour" -- it seems to be almost in slow motion, as they painfully attempt to move toward the gate that will take them to the other side and the waiting boat. One minute they are plodding and bobbing along the fence -- the next, there is a long shot of the silently encroaching police cars that will outrun them. I love that the music does not change -- there is no "TA-TA-TA-TA" blast to accompany the first visual of the oncoming police. Still you see the reaction shot of Kathleen's face and her stubborn and loving efforts to keep JM moving along.

    Oh, and the "bowler-headed tramp" is played by F.J. McCormick, not Cyril Cusack.