Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out
Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: F.L. Green & R.C. Sherriff (based on the novel by F.L. Green)
Stars: James Mason (Johnny McQueen), Robert Newton (Lukey), Cyril Cusack (Pat), F.J. McCormick (Shell), William Hartnell (Fencie), Fay Compton (Rosie), Denis O’Dea (Inspector), W.G. Fay (Father Tom), Maureen Delaney (Theresa O’Brien), Elwyn Brook-Jones (Tober), Robert Beatty (Dennis), Dan O’Herlihy (Nolan), Kitty Kirwan (Grannie), Beryl Measor (Maudie), Roy Irving (Murphy), Joseph Tomelty (“Gin” Jimmy, the cabbie)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1947
Country: U.K.
Odd Man Out Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Odd Man OutThe immediate postwar years, which film historian Robert Sklar has dubbed “a small ‘golden age’ of British cinema,” was a particularly fertile period for director Carol Reed, who truly came into his own with Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949)—a triumvirate of strikingly stylish films about conflicted antiheroes living on the margins of society. Of the three, the first is arguably the greatest. Odd Man Out is a dark, despondent, stylishly noir-infused psychological thriller about a wounded Irish revolutionary being hunted through the cold, wet streets of Belfast.

Yet, even though it may be the most influential and groundbreaking, it is a film that has often slipped through the cracks and been forgotten in favor of other films of the period (particularly The Third Man, whose zither score and extraordinary cameo performance by Orson Welles has insured its cinematic immortality, as well as David Lean’s impressive adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist). There is nothing flashy in Odd Man Out, although it is one of the most visually accomplished postwar British films, with Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker (who would win an Oscar the next year for lensing The Third Man) taking the look of American film noir and escalating it substantially, but without sacrificing the film’s inherent realism. One of Odd Man Out’s most striking features is the way it marries documentary-like realism with highly stylized artifice, including expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting, canted camera angles, and a powerful orchestral score. It seamlessly blends location photography with extraordinarily detailed studio sets, and at some points it even works in surreal hallucinations that could easily have emerged from a silent film by Luis Bunuel, F.W. Murnau, or Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Based on the best-selling 1945 novel by British author F.L. Green, Odd Man Out takes place over a 12-hour period in Belfast, although the city is not explicitly named at any point (aerial shots of the city at the beginning of the film make its location inarguable, as does the important presence of the Albert Memorial Clock). At the time, very few British films took place in Northern Ireland, and if they did, they did not in any way deal with “the Troubles,” the general term used to describe the tensions, violence, and outright war between the country’s largely Catholic-identifying nationalist community and the largely Protestant-identifying unionist community. Although the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is, like Belfast, never explicitly named, everyone seeing the film then and now immediately reads references to “The Organization” as the IRA.

The film’s protagonist is Johnny McQueen (James Mason), the leader of the Organization who has recently escaped from prison and spent the previous six months hiding out in a small apartment owned by Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) and her elderly grandmother (Kitty Kirwan). The film opens with Johnny and other members of the Organization planning the robbery of a mill, which they will use to fund their cause. This scene does not appear anywhere in the novel, and it allows Johnny to express both his political commitment and his ambivalence toward the use of violence for political gain, a crucial component to making his character both sympathetic and morally complex. The mill robbery goes well at first, but in the end it falls apart and Johnny kills a man after being shot in the arm. He falls out of the getaway car and is left behind by his comrades, who bicker among themselves as to whether they should go back and get him or if he is better off on his own.

Johnny winds up alone, and he spends the long, increasingly frigid night (rain gradually gives way to snow) making his way through the streets and back alleys of Belfast, seeking any form of shelter he can find as he evades the police. The narrative at this point takes on an episodic quality, as Johnny’s nocturnal journal, made ever more difficult by his weakening physical and mental state, puts him in the care of numerous characters, virtually all of which are reluctant to become involved in the politics he represents. The film’s portrait of Belfast is of a city filled with ordinary, generally decent people who are compelled by Johnny’s essential helplessness, but are nonetheless deeply fearful of the violence of their country’s ethno-national conflicts. There are some characters who want to exploit him, though, and it is here that the film slips into some caricature, particularly in the depiction of Shell (F.J. McCormick), an elderly derelict who discovers Johnny in an alley after he is dumped off by a coach driver (Joseph Tomelty) who unknowingly drove him through a police blockade, and Lukey (Robert Newton), a deranged painter who becomes obsessed with painting Johnny’s portrait. The only person who truly wants to help Johnny is Kathleen, who is secretly smitten with him and is willing to do anything to find him, even if that puts her own life in danger.

Thus, Odd Man Out is simultaneously a taut thriller, a deeply affecting interpersonal drama, and a portrait of a culture in conflict. That Reed is able to keep the film’s politics at bay while still allowing them to inform the dramatic center of the film is one of its most laudable aspects; he manages to both downplay and highlight the political reality of the day. His cast of mostly character actors drawn from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre (James Mason is the only “star” in the film) create a memorable tapestry of conflicted humanity, with W.G. Fay being particularly memorable as Father Tom, a well-respected priest who must tread the middle ground between his faith and the law. The formal qualities of Odd Man Out, while often attention-grabbing, are never needlessly derivative or distracting; each odd camera angle and bloom of light against the dark has its place, and the result is a film that is consistently captivating, from the opening moments in which its doomed plot is rehearsed, to the final fateful moment in which our worst fears are realized. Itt is haunting and remarkable and utterly uncompromised.

Odd Man Out Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Interview with British cinema scholar John Hill
  • Interview with music scholar Jeff Smith
  • Postwar Poetry, short documentary about the film
  • Home, James (1972) documentary
  • Radio adaptation of the film from 1952
  • Essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateApril 14, 2015

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Those of us in Region 1 have had to make do since 1999 with Imagine Entertainment’s soft, green-tinged DVD of Odd Man Out, so Criterion’s new high-definition presentation on Blu-ray is particularly welcome. The transfer used here was taken from a new 35mm composite fine-grain print made from the original 35mm nitrate negative, which is held by the BFI National Archive. Various modes of digital restoration have removed most signs of age and wear, although a few hairlines and minor blemishes persist, as well as a few hairs caught in the gate that would be inherent to the original image. The presentation overall is outstanding, with excellent contrast, sharp detail, and dark blacks that give the film’s heightened noir look its full due. I was particularly impressed by the range of shadow detail and how even the darkest frames maintain visual clarity. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack positive and digitally restored. There is some slight ambient hiss in some of the quieter moments (particularly the opening scene), but overall the track is clean and clear, with some hints of depth, especially in William Alwyn’s carefully composed orchestral score, which was actually written and recorded before the film was shot.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    While there is no commentary included on the disc, the new 25-minute interview with British cinema scholar John Hill, author of Cinema and Northern Ireland: Film, Culture and Politics, is extremely informative and enlightening. Hill, who was filmed (appropriately) in The Crown Pub, talks about both the historical and political background that frames the film, as well as its visual innovations and uniqueness. The film’s visual style is closely examined in Postwar Poetry, a new short documentary, while William Alwyn’s musical score is discussed in depth in a 15-minute interview with music scholar Jeff Smith. From the archives we get Home, James, a nearly hour-long made-for-British-television documentary from 1972 that follows actor James Mason as he revisits locations and people in his hometown of Huddersfield in the north of England, and a half-hour 1952 radio adaptation of the film starring Mason and Dan O’Herlihy.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)




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