Odd Man Out


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Odd Man Out
"Even if almost all of Johnny's journey into darkness takes place on foot, only his first steps are truly pedestrian." | Photo: Criterion Collection

In 1949, Carol Reed used the backstreets and sewers of post-war Vienna as the perfect contemporary vehicle for film noir, in what would be his most enduring and beloved film, The Third Man - but two years earlier, with Odd Man Out, he was already exploring the genre's play of light and shadow, cops and gangsters, in that most unlikely of underworld settings, strife-torn Belfast.

Not that Belfast is ever actually named - rather it is left as "a city of Northern Ireland", while what is clearly the IRA is referred to simply as "an illegal organisation". After all, as is stated in the rolling text that opens Odd Man Out, this is a film concerned less with the specificities of political struggle than "with the conflict in the hearts of the people".

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As such, it remains true to the moral complexities typical of noir, where nothing is black and white (besides, of course, the stylish monochrome filmstock). Here, although their activities are hardly condoned, the Republican gangsters are also not demonised, making Odd Man Out something of a relief from the shrill (and simplistic) brand of anti-'terrorist' rhetoric that characterises today's media. To appreciate just how truly subversive and unorthodox Reed's film is, try updating its sympathetic hero to his contemporary equivalent - say, an operative for Hezbollah, or al Qaeda - and imagine the likely outcry at seeing such a figure portrayed as a human being rather than a soulless monster.

Six months after breaking out of prison for weapons smuggling, Republican chief Johnny McQueen (James Mason) decides to come out of hiding to lead the robbery of a mill, ignoring warnings from both his love Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) and his loyal lieutenant Dennis (Robert Beatty) that he is not fit for the job. Despite his growing disdain for the violence of his cause, Johnny becomes involved in an exchange of gunfire on his way out of the mill, and is left alone and unprotected in the streets, as a huge police cordon begins to close in.

Weak, delirious, and slowly bleeding to death from his injuries in the city's back-alleys, Johnny's fate already seems sealed, but it is the responses of others to this dead man walking that become the film's real focus, as they all struggle over what to do with him. The decent Inspector (Denis O'Dea) wants Johnny to face justice, Dennis (Robert Beatty) wants to bring him back to the Organisation for help, Father Tom (W.G. Fay) wants to save his soul, med school dropout Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones) wants to mend his body, the eccentric painter Lukey (Robert Newton) wants to capture the look in his eyes, while impoverished dipsomaniac Shell (F.J. McCormick) sees him as an opportunity to make money. Kathleen, on the other hand, just wants to be with Johnny till the end - and with the snow falling thick and midnight approaching, the end cannot be far away.

Odd Man Out has all the trappings (and some of the excitement) of a manhunt thriller, but as Johnny takes his long day's journey into night, the hostile, claustrophobic environs of Belfast begin to assume a more metaphysical dimension, with Johnny being not just a fugitive staggering to avoid the constabulary, but also a lost soul travelling the cold, cold road towards his own death - and it is this spiritual quality that elevates the film from conventional crime flick (albeit in an unconventional setting) to grand tragedy and universal allegory.

Just as well, really, for Odd Man Out gets off to a strangely torpid start, with even the heist unfolding at a pace that could at best be called subdued. In one particularly uneconomical scene, shortly after Johnny has been shot, he is shown narrating unnecessarily, and at considerable length, a sequence of events that we have just seen take place in their entirety. It is only when the mercenary Shell first appears, engaged in a cryptic debate with pious Father Tom over Johnny's future, that the screenplay, the characters and the performances all start coming into their own - and from that scene on, Odd Man Out becomes a beautifully bleak examination of human value, as well as a poetic, almost surreal vision of a man awaiting the knell of his appointed hour.

So, even if almost all of Johnny's journey into darkness takes place on foot, only his first steps are truly pedestrian. The rest is a rich noir treat - and Mason has the acting chops to make even a rapidly fading, near mute half-corpse compelling to watch.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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An injured IRA man goes on the run in the forbidding back streets of Belfast.
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Director: Carol Reed

Writer: F.L. Green, R.C. Sherriff, from the novel by F.L. Green

Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan, F.J. McCormick, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, Denis O'Dea, W.G. Fay, Maureen Delaney, Eleyn Brook-Jones, Robert Beatty, Dan O'Herlihy, Kitty Kirwan, Beryl Measor, Roy Irving, Joseph Tomelty, Arthur

Year: 1947

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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