ODD MAN OUT (1947)

  • Director: Carol Reed
  • Writer: R.C. Sheriff, from the novel by F.L. Green
  • Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan, F.J. McCormick, Denis O’Dea, W.G. Fay, William Hartnell, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Robert Beatty, Dan O’Herlihy, Kitty Kirwan, Maureen Delaney, Beryl Measor, and Joseph Tomelty
  • Accolades: Shown at Venice International Film Festival, 1 Oscar nomination (Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Apple TV

We all have our own tastes when it comes to movies. Some people love big, romantic movies, other people like action movies. My tastes can sometimes be harder to pin down, but I tell you one thing: I loved, loved, loved Odd Man Out. I was expecting it, based on all descriptions, to be this sort of semi-picaresque journey of a fugitive around post-war Belfast. It feints in that direction, but is much, much weirder, and has a lot more to say about a bunch of different things, than that summary might suggest. Its main character, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), spends basically the whole movie dying and hallucinating. The direction by Carol Reed frequently edges into surrealism or German Expressionism. Some people may love Gone With the Wind or Titanic, but, for me, Odd Man Out is exactly what I want out of a movie. Which makes it all the crazier that I had literally never heard of this movie until I received the book 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die as a Hanukkah present a few months ago.

Johnny McQueen is “the head of the local Organization,” by which the movie makes extremely clear it means the IRA. Nor does it ever name the city where it takes place, though the movie starts with a sweeping opening aerial shot of Belfast and was mostly shot on location there. Though a few of Johnny’s subordinates question whether he’s up to go on a robbery just after getting out of prison, he oversees an attempted robbery of a mill. Everyone else gets away, but Johnny is shot in a fight with a guard and forced to go on the run. He is helped by several different residents of the city, each of whom has their own motivations for doing so. Meanwhile, he is pursued by various members of his team, the girl who loves him (Kathleen Ryan), the local constable (Denis O’Dea), and a drunk weirdo (F.J. McCormick), among others.

The movie opens with a title card that you can tell the movie’s producers (a British studio called J. Arthur Rank, which one commenter in a Criterion Channel featurette described as having “pretensions of Hollywood”) forced them to put on. “This story is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of people when they become unexpectedly involved.” In other words, we’re not on the side of the IRA, we swear! But this is also a succinct description of what the movie’s really about, to the extent its about any specific thing. The Troubles in Northern Ireland are often shown as pitting wide swaths of society against each other, but most people in this movie are just trying to live their lives and are not on either side. When Johnny stumbles into a bar, the proprietor, played to my great interest by a young First Doctor, William Hartnell, speaks for many of the side characters in the movie: “You can’t stay here! I’m not for you, I’m not against you. I just can’t get involved in this. I’m just trying to run a bar!” 

Some characters he meets get mad at others who suggest turning Johnny in for the 10,000 pound reward. Even though they would never get involved in actual IRA activities, they immediately bristle at the idea of “turning in a man on the run.” Fitzgerald’s outcast character, Shell, is berated by his vaguely-intellectual roommate (Elwyn Brook-Jones), for his attempts to get the reward money, but when Johnny actually appears in his apartment, the man immediately suggests taking him to the hospital. Of course, this is obviously pretty much the same thing as turning him in to the police. Shell is perhaps the single weirdest thing in a very weird movie. He gets at least two separate scenes where he’s actually talking about Johnny, but does it in an elaborate metaphor about his bird that the other people he’s talking to only gradually cotton on to. He has another roommate, Lukey (former English child star Robert Newton, who receives second billing in the credits), who is desperate to paint Johnny because of “the look in his eyes.” The whole thing is much more surreal than one might be expecting when this movie starts out.

Director Carol Reed is probably best known today for the films he made in a three year period from 1947 to 1949, of which Odd Man Out was the first, all of which are often retroactively grouped under the “film noir” umbrella. One gets the sense, however, that Reed might have come to some of his shadowy, doom-filled stories in a different way than some of his American counterparts. Many of his films more than make up for any budgetary constraints through their settings. Odd Man Out turns actual Belfast locations into phantasmagoria worthy of a Fritz Lang film. Despite what I am told they will tell you if you actually go there, he did re-create Belfast’s Crown Bar as a set, complete with Victorian-style snugs for Johnny to hide out in. Reed would do something similar with the bombed-out remains of post-war Vienna in his next film, The Third Man, which you will occasionally see at the top of lists of the Greatest British Films ever made. We may get there someday soon.

As The Third Man has been the Reed film that has gone down in film history, it has often completely overshadowed Odd Man Out, even though the latter movie ended up winning the very first BAFTA Award for Best British Film. It has had its advocates over the years, however, among them the legally-troubled director Roman Polanski, who has consistently named it over the years as his favorite film. The Third Man’s most famous sequences are masterpieces of paranoia and suspense, but Odd Man Out is decidedly more, well, cerebral. From very early on, there is little question whether Mason’s character will survive. He will not. The story is thus not about suspense. It is about his journey to his own doom. 

In one memorable sequence at the bar run by Hartnell’s character, he spills a beer in his delirium and then sees one of the many faces of people in his life, accusing him or talking about him. This works so well partly because there are so many great performances in this movie, there are a couple dozen characters and they’re all memorable. Reed, it seems, had the pick of the great British and Irish character actors of his day, and piles all of them into the corners of this movie.

Both Odd Man Out and The Third Man play like nightmares of a broken world, perhaps because that really is how Britain and Europe might have felt for some in the years immediately after World War II. But they are different sorts of nightmares. Odd Man Out mostly takes place over the course of a long, snowy night, in a world where the only certainty is death. That it takes place during the Troubles is almost incidental, a backdrop for the feelings evoked. Nor is it really a movie about criminals, or what it’s like to live a life of crime. In this way, Odd Man Out is a film noir in the same way that High Noon is a western. It has all the trappings of the genre but uses them to tell an entirely different story about the things it’s actually interested in. As I said, I really loved this movie. I’ve watched a lot of new-to-me movies for this blog, and honestly this might be my favorite so far.

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