Odds Against Tomorrow


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Odds Against Tomorrow
"The striking framing by director Robert Wise and cinematographer Joseph C Brun...adds an extra layer of menace to the urban environment."

A late era noir which sets aside the femme fatales and short-lived husbands to focus on the simplest of crimes – robbery carried out for sake of accessing some ready cash – Odds Against Tomorrow taps into Fifties America’s deep social unease, finding the same problems amongst the criminal fraternity that exist elsewhere, and highlighting the damage they do to all concerned. It was produced by Harry Belafonte, who also stars in it as nightclub singer Johnny Ingram, a man whose gambling addiction forces him to go to desperate lengths. Still working at 96, Belafonte is now the only surviving member of its core cast, but it retains a fan following, as a screening in the Gloria Grahame strand at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival made clear.

Grahame plays Helen, not quite a femme fatale but certainly a complicating influence in the life of career criminal Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), who is not long out of prison and already frustrated with the constraints of his day to day life. He’s looking for a way out, so when corrupt ex-cop David Burke (Ed Begley) offers him the chance to take part in a bank job, he doesn’t take much persuading. They go over the details and everything looks good to him – until he discovers that it will require him to work with a black man. There is unvarnished racism here, including the use of the N-word, which remains uncensored. Viewers may find it distinctly uncomfortable, though it is undoubtedly authentic.

Copy picture

The robbery, needless to say, doesn’t go to plan – not due to any failure on Johnny’s part, but due to the sort of accident which no-one can account for but anyone might reasonably expect. What happens next tests the character of the three men, one of whom emerges in an unexpectedly heroic light, whilst the fate of the other two delivers a pointed moral lesson of its own.

The story is simple but not really the point. Of greater interest here is the striking framing by director Robert Wise and cinematographer Joseph C Brun, which adds an extra layer of menace to the urban environment. Parts of the picture were actually shot on infra-red film to heighten the contrasts, and it’s an experiment which pays off. Released in 1959, as colour films were increasingly taking over at the box office, it leaves one wondering how the genre might have evolved otherwise. Brun’s lighting of Belafonte highlights the similarity rather than the difference between the characters’ skin tones and pits them all against a world full of shadows and industrial forms which seem to represent the overwhelming social forces against which none of them can ever really hope to prevail.

As moody and gripping as it is aesthetically interesting, this is a must for serious noir fans, whilst those who love crime films more generally will appreciate the way that it looks forward to the gritty thrillers of the Sixties and Seventies.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2023
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Odds Against Tomorrow packshot
In need of quick money, a fallen former cop recruits a hard-bitten ex-con and a debt-ridden nightclub singer to pull off a bank job. But as the animosity between them boils over, the entire plan threatens to implode.

Director: Robert Wise

Writer: William P McGivern, Abraham Polonsky, Nelson Gidding

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley

Year: 1959

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US


Glasgow 2023

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