Written by Shawn Bourdo
The Criterion Collection has always had impeccable timing with their releases for me. They seem to know just when I’m going through what is usually referred to as a “phase.” They knew when I was just getting into Charlie Chaplin, reviewing the works of Wes Anderson, and even recently when I was going back through the Errol Morris films. So during the Summer when I’m watching film noir of the late 1940s and early 1950s, they recently released Carol Reed’s first highly regarded film Odd Man Out (1947) on Blu-ray.
I’m familiar with Carol Reed’s work from one of my top-rated films in The Third Man (1949) and The Fallen Idol (1948). I was not familiar with his work on Odd Man Out unfortunately. This is just the type of film that I love The Criterion Collection for introducing to a new generation. It’s like they keep going out and finding masterpieces geared towards the serious film lover. After so many spot-on choices, I keep thinking they are either simply going to run out of films to choose or have to start making them themselves. Since I have seen the two films that follow this one, it’s hard not to compare the three, but I tried to watch this outside of that mindset.
From the very first shot, cinematographer Robert Krasker sets a mood of a complex and terrifying city. I was taken right back to the opening scenes of The Third Man and how Vienna was a maze of shadows and cobblestones and side streets calling to us. This film takes place in what is only called an Irish town but is obviously Belfast. The city, like London in The Fallen Idol, is a character. The film takes place over a winter night and the shock of white and black heightens the battle between life and death. There are parts of town that seem so black that light cannot penetrate. And then there are patches of light that hold off the darkness and we feel hope for our main character.
James Mason plays the Odd Man Out as Johnny McQueen. The opening title card tells the viewer that the film is about the hearts of people who become involved in illegal activity and not the law and the organization. The “organization” is quickly surmised by most viewers to be the IRA. Johnny is a fugitive from the law after escaping from prison. He’s an odd man out of the organization because he no longer believes in violence to accomplish political goals. He’s isolated from the organization even more as his men don’t trust him to pull off the robbery of a local mill.
Unlike more traditional film noir, the movie starts in light. It almost appears to be a documentary of an Irish town before we focus in on the plot. The single-day story of the film transitions from the light of day to a surreal darkness. This symbolizes the evolution of the plot and of our main character, Johnny. The robbery is almost completed without injury until Johnny is shot escaping the mill. This starts a trip through the city that gets darker and scarier.
James Mason is brilliant. He’s always been a favorite of mine. What I’ve loved about him in films like A Star Is Born, Lolita, and North by Northwest is his voice. But here he has to do much of his acting in the second half of the film with his eyes and face. Johnny is injured to the point that he is often taken from location to location without being able to speak or move. We see and hear the debate of his fate without the ability to speak up just like Johnny.
The debate occurs between normal Englishwomen, the police, a crazy painter, a bird seller, and most notably, a local priest, Father Tom. The battle between light and darkness is evident in every scene. But the night is getting on and darkness is winning. This Johnny is a murderer but is his life worth saving? He is fighting for his own life while others around him exam it and mainly how it affects them. One wants a reward, others want him just out of their lives and will put him in a cab and drive him away, and the artist wants to paint him. Ultimately, it comes back to love. The woman who plays Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) has that perfect stone face, film noir look. It’s hard to read her straight through the end as they try to get to the steamship to escape this world.
I can see so many of the themes that Reed would later explore in The Third Man and The Fallen Idol. But they are even more artistically drawn out in the second half of this film. I can see the influence of Hitchcock in the powerless man aspect of the film. The postwar British film industry followed many of the basic patterns of this film – the plot is very standard. But the artistic turn is very unique. It fits perfectly in with any other film noir of this era and is an excellent addition to my library.
The Blu-ray comes with a great documentary about James Mason revisiting his hometown from 1972, a radio adaptation of the film that works really well, interviews, an essay, and a short documentary called “Postwar Poetry” about the film. It will definitely make you want to watch The Third Man again.
As Johnny is dying he quotes 1 Corinthians 13 out of order but says “when I was a child . . . though I speak and have not charity, I am nothing.” He has summed up most of the film noir of the era. And on another level he states clearly the main debate of the film. This isn’t about the law and an organization. It’s about a man and his internal struggles. In this case, he will choose love over religion. But each case is up for debate. We all feel like that odd man out from time to time.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00SC8KUQ6]