April 21, 2015
Odd Man Out has an absence at its center. It stars James Mason as a revolutionary in Northern Ireland, but he is either missing or comatose for the majority of its running time. A scattered group of fringe players search for his body, from IRA fellow travelers to middle-class families to eccentric bird merchants. What emerges is a portrait of a stunned post-WWII Belfast, tired of violence but in no hurry to pass Mason off to the cops. It is either sympathy or indolence that keeps him alive, as his husk is passed from alley to bar and finally, to the docks. The city’s cavernous, emptied out streets are the setting for Mason’s absolution. For though he is a murderer, Mason’s beatific, radiant performance gives his character a saintly aura, as if taking on the sins of the post-war world. Though it has overshadowed the lower-budgeted Brit-noirs of this period (which are in need of reclamation), Odd Man Out is more than worthy of its reputation. Earlier this month it received the Criterion treatment, released in a new HD restoration on DVD and Blu-ray, with their usual array of copious extras, including a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith.
Odd Man Out was produced by Filippo Del Giudice, a pivotal figure in postwar British cinema. Raised in Rome and educated as a lawyer, he fled Fascist Italy for London in 1933. He founded the Two Cities Films production company with his partner Mario Zampi four years later, the name reflecting his journey. He received monetary backing from Ludovico Toeplitz de Grand Ry, the scion of an Italian banking family living in London. Their first films were the musical Stepping Toes (1938) and the war drama 13 Men and a Gun (’38, directed by Zampi), which netted them enough respect to hire director Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion (’38)) and star Ray Milland to adapt the Terence Rattigan play French Without Tears in 1940. But Italy would enter the war in June of 1940, whereupon both Giudice and Zampi were arrested and interned on the Isle of Man for possible Fascist sympathies. The duo was released after four months after proving their bona fides – and Giudice bore no ill will towards his adopted country. He would go on to produce the most popular British war movie of the era with In Which We Serve (’42), written, directed and starring Noel Coward.
Giudice didn’t consider himself an artist, and was known to give his filmmakers free reign over their projects. David Lean recalled that “He used to call himself ‘The Butler’, meaning, ‘I am your butler.’ …He really was a producer. He produced the money, he ironed out all sorts of troubles.” In 1944, in an attempt to raise capital for Laurence Olivier’s expensive Henry V, Giudice sold a controlling interest in Two Cities to the Rank Organisation. Two Cities would become production unit under their umbrella. It was this arrangement under which Odd Man Out was made. Giudice was the point man, officially credited as “in charge of production”, while Carol Reed received a “producer credit”. Reed, as with most Giudice films, received a free hand. He hired Robert Krasker as his DP, the man who had just shot Henry V and David Lean’s Brief Encounter. He had his regular composer William Alwyn write the score in advance (each character granted their own leitmotif), so his actors could adapt their performances to the grandly mournful music. Reed wanted F.L. Green to adopt his own novel for the screenplay, and hired veteran scribe R.C. Sherriff (most famously the author of the play “Journey’s End”) to assist him, as Green had never before written for the movies.
The film takes place over one doomed evening in Belfast following the fate of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), leader of a revolutionary group mentioned only as “The Organisation”, though it is very obviously a stand-in for the IRA. In an effort to raise money, the group robs a bank. The early sections of the film unfurl as a heist film set a sleepwalkers pace. The men stroll through the bank with studied nonchalance, and get out at the same slow lope. There is no one left who would try to be a hero, except one nosy guard on the bank steps, who accosts Johnny and gets a bullet in the gut instead. Dumbstruck at his own act of violence, and having taken a bullet through the shoulder himself, the getaway car gets away from Johnny as well, who is left wandering the streets. These early sequences are strange in their affectlessness, and their refusal to engage with McQueen’s politics. His wound is immediately worked as a symbol of humanity at large, and the specifics of the IRA’s struggle are a casualty of this symbolism. James Agee thought the film buckled under the ponderousness of its symbolism in his 1947 review in The Nation: “As an image and allegory, the whole film loses much of its possible force: it is not a tragic poem but a series of passive elegiac tableaux with a certain suggested relationship, generally inferior, to the Stations of the Cross. The tone of pity for man is much too close to self-pity.”
The passivity of McQueen after the robbery is striking – he stumbles from place to place with seemingly no will of his own. He is completely at the mercy of strangers. The local children ignore him as he cowers in an alley — he isn’t part of their game. A comfy middle-class home is shocked to discover that the injured man they are aiding is the wanted criminal McQueen. But instead of calling the cops, they simply let him loose, wanting him gone without the guilt of the informer hanging over their heads. John Ford’s The Informer (’35) hangs heavy over this film, as it is another atmospheric story about a political outcast wandering the streets of Ireland, seeking absolution. Where Victor McLaglen is despised for his naming names in The Informer, McQueen is regarded with wary respect as a man of principle. The few citizens most willing to exploit him are a painter-on-the-skids (Robert Newton) eager to paint a portrait of the dying rebel, and an eccentric bird collector (F.J. McCormick), who is eager to deliver McQueen to the local priest for a modest fee.
McQueen survives somehow, being passed along as a hot potato from kind to not-so-kind strangers. The film turns more and more abstract as it goes along, those “passive elegiac tableaux” gaining in resonance as McQueen’s survival becomes more and more pointless. This is a city that has continually expelled him from its hearth and onto the unforgiving streets. Though unwieldy and obvious in its themes at times, it remains a painfully melancholy film about nighttime in the city, with Krasker bouncing a few rays of light off the cobblestones to illuminate McQueen’s perambulations to nowhere.