Criterion Project #30: ODD MAN OUT (1947)

Odd Man Out

Spine #754

Year: 1947

Director: Carol Reed

I’ve wandered back into the shadows of film noir, and it’s one that was unfamiliar to me prior to this week. Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is one of the greatest films ever made and unquestionably in my personal top 10 films of all-time, so I was excited to finally watch Odd Man Out after picking it up last November. And I definitely wasn’t disappointed, to say the least. While it doesn’t compare to the star-powered pyrotechnics and sheer iconography of the former, I feel this film more than hold its own against its highly regarded brethren.

The film begins with a meeting of Irish nationalists getting ready to pull a mill heist. The leader of the group, dubbed “the Organization”, is Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a fugitive from the law after escaping from prison six months prior. He calmly metes out each player’s role in the job, though including himself as one of the trigger-men leaves the others a bit shaky. Johnny’s second-in-command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), confronts him about his role, citing Johnny’s fatigue and weariness after being in prison for several months and then in hiding for six months afterward. Dennis ultimately offers to take his place as point-man, which Johnny refuses. At this point we also discover that Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), who’s been hiding the fugitive since his jailbreak, is in-love with Johnny and doesn’t want him to take part in the robbery, either. Foolish pride and an unwavering commitment to the Organization keeps him from relinquishing his role, which, if you’re familiar with film noirs, you know will be costly.

To make a long story short, not everything goes to plan and before long only four-fifths of the gang arrive back at Kathleen’s, all with differing opinions regarding what happened to Johnny and where he might be. We only know three things for sure – he was wounded during the escape, he killed a man, and he’s hiding somewhere in the city. Thus begins the long nightmare of Johnny McQueen.

While Odd Man Out doesn’t come close to matching the star-power of The Third Man, it more than equals it with visual flair. Long alleys, dank corridors, and misbegotten bomb shelters are coursing with suffocating black shadows juxtaposed against gleaming shafts of white light. This is the type of movie that was meant to be photographed in black-and-white. Many of the most famous images from The Third Man make an early appearance in this film, namely the famous visual of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) fleeing through the watery tunnels of Vienna with rays of light bending around his outstretched limbs. This film features almost identical imagery and also takes the visual panache a step further with two unique, deeply affecting sequences late in the film.

The scenes both occur during Johnny’s travels through the city as he’s narrowly evading capture and barely clinging to life as the result of a gunshot would to his shoulder. The first comes when he’s tucked away in a booth at a raucous bar and suddenly all the characters and events from the day, stemming from the botched job, appear at once to haunt him. Only partially conscious, he spills his drink on the table, creating a canvas for characters to inhabit the small bubbles in the spilled liquid on the table, coalescing in a cacophony of sentiment and damning conversation all jumbled together. The result is a nightmarish moment of waking fright.

The second scene comes at a later moment just before the film has reached its climax, when Johnny must face himself and the repercussions of the crime he committed. It’s a literal come-to-Jesus moment wherein a multitude of paintings assemble as a sort of congregation before his ultimate epiphany. Once again, the effect is dream-like and uniquely haunting, delirious, and strangely uplifting. I don’t believe this dreamy feeling is unintentional. The film begins like a crime caper, albeit with an Irish twist, but quickly devolves into a literal nightmare for Johnny and the locals he comes in contact with.

Johnny’s first refuge is an uninhabited air raid shelter bristling with hellish memories. He passes out after first finding sanctuary in the bleak hideaway, but soon awakes believing he’s back in prison and thinking his current predicament and previous jailbreak were merely part of a much longer dream. After reckoning he’s detailed the dream to a familiar prison guard, the cloud of distorted reality fades away and he realizes he’s recollected his current predicament to a little girl looking for her ball. This interaction will create a space for Johnny to maneuver out of danger later on, with many similar moments and characters acting as brief protectors of sorts throughout, whether conscious of or willingly taking part in it or not.

This is the first moment of blurred reality and it sets a tone for the parallel journey Johnny’s body and mind will go on. Much of the film involves numerous characters trying to get their hands on Johnny for a myriad of reasons – romantic, financial, dutiful, ethical, moral, and even artistic. His role in each of the serendipitous encounters is generally non-performative. People come across him by chance, with only those actively looking for him unable to locate him.

By not partaking in much of his fate Johnny becomes almost a secondary character in his own story, much the way you might in a dream. Many of my personal dreams feature a confusing narrative wherein I find myself unknowingly shifting locations and unable to grab control of the direction of the dream. Some people Johnny comes across are familiar to him, whether it’s friends, acquaintances, or enemies, and others are complete strangers who only know of his exploits. This, again, is reflected in dreams where we find a variety of characters playing a role. Friends, family, and partners constitute the majority of the cast of characters, but there are frequently nameless, sometimes faceless, trespassers in my nightly dreams. I often wake up with unanswerable questions regarding the identity of these fantastical parts and the befuddling role they play in my dream state. These confusing attributes are reflected in Johnny’s trials and tribulations over the course of this fateful day where his journey is often dictated by some outside force.

It becomes a race against time as to who will find Johnny and deliver him to his fate. With his crew all locked up or dead, his comeuppance or survival depends which character will be at the opportune place to cash in the reward. Again, if you understand the trappings of the genre, it isn’t too difficult to pre-figure the gist of Johnny’s resolution, even if you don’t guess the specifics. And I’m perfectly happy with that. I like my noirs dour and damning.

Odd Man Out certainly carved out a place on my list of favorite and re-watchable film noirs, with Carol Reed delivering another visually sumptuous classic. I’d be interested in taking a trip through more of his oeuvre just based on the two features of his I’ve seen so far. I can definitely see myself having a double-feature with this film and The Third Man as part of a noir-centric viewing experience. And, honestly, who doesn’t need more noir in their life?

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