Directed by Carol Reed and presented by the legendary J. Arthur Rank, both of whom were at the height of their careers with still more great films to come, Odd Man Out is one of the pinnacle achievements in post-war British cinema. And with James Mason in the lead, a major British star at the time, the film had everything going for it: superb direction, a solid screenplay, terrific performances, and stunning cinematography by Robert Krasker. The final result was named best film of the year by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1947 by the National Board of Review. Certainly, Odd Man Out was widely seen and well regarded in its time. But now, with a newly released Criterion Blu-ray of the picture, it’s hard to think of a more glorious presentation.
Reed opens Odd Man Out with an overhead helicopter shot traveling atop the Belfast cityscape, slowing cutting downward to the streets and buildings below. This choice of an introductory vantage point is significant, for as a film, Odd Man Out is most fascinating as it hones in on individual dramas—one in particular but many on the periphery—in a time and place of wider turmoil and strife. While there are undeniably the sociopolitical motivations behind the film and its storyline, for the most part, particularly as the picture progresses, the driving ideology goes out the window. Far more than the politics that serve as the instigation for Mason’s Johnny McQueen character and his cohorts, the film is primarily concerned with average folks in extraordinary, uneasy circumstances.
At the start, Johnny, a recently escaped convict, is smooth, soft-spoken, and confident. He is the leader of an ambiguous and ambitious Irish “organization” in need of funding. It is decided that said funds are to come from a mill, which Johnny and his crew plan to rob. While Johnny seems cool and collected, if not wholly enthused, others have their doubts about his competency (perhaps he should sit this one out, they propose, having just fled from prison after all), but they are nevertheless assured. In these opening sequences, where the men lay out their strategy for the heist, what stands out in a strange and prominent way is that though they are planning an obviously criminal act, these men aren’t like criminals. All of the performers—Robert Newton, with Mason, the most famous among them—are so comfortable and relatable that their down-to-earth personalities never once seem malicious. A lot of this also has to do with Reed’s direction, which, especially in these early scenes, captures the workaday environment of this Irish town, and how this desperate action seems to be born from blue-collar necessity.
With the other women who move about the circle of accomplices, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), Johnny’s love interest, never really questions the actions of the men. By nearly all accounts, what they plan to do has to be done. But she does cast doubt on the ultimate aim of the their mission. “Will you ever be free?” she asks Johnny. Not just from prison, her question suggests, but from the dogma that drives his actions. Indeed, even if and when he and the others rob the mill and attain the money, what then? Where do they go from there? Toward what will those funds go? And how far will it take them?
Giving credence to the other men and their doubts, and concurrently setting up the suspense of the theft, Reed conveys Johnny’s mental unease and physical distress via a brief sequence on the way to the mill. Through quick cutting, erratic camera movement, oblique angles, and a simulation of his blurred vision, Johnny’s anxiety is visually apparent. It’s an effective way of punctuating the narrative with expressive imagery, and later, Reed and Krasker will similarly utilize sharp contrasts of black and white with deep focus photography to do the same. In general, Reed does for this Irish town what he and Krasker would do for the streets of Vienna in The Third Man two years later. Their representation of the city places equal focus on the weather-beaten setting as well as the faces that populate it.
Sure enough, the concerns of the other men and Johnny’s own evident reticence prove fatally prophetic. Johnny is shot during the escape and subsequently shoots and kills a cashier. Though Johnny is rescued as they speed away, he slips (or is let go, depending on who recalls the story; those who escape safely are quick to pass the blame). He falls from the car and is left behind. He manages to run off, but is now left wounded, alone, hunted, and hallucinating.
Once the drama of the heist itself becomes secondary, the film becomes an almost allegorical character study of the citizenry, with attention shifting to the diverse lives of those in the town. Throughout the film, Reed and writers F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff highlight the alliance between like-minded individuals, with many encountered by Johnny in particular having a bond united by similar views on their shared social condition. Others, however, and there are just as many who sympathize with Johnny as those who don’t, have their own selfish motivations. Some are quick to care for the injured convict, no matter what he did, but some are equally quick to sell him out for their own personal gains. Some are caring, some are conniving, some are ambivalent to the whole ordeal and are content to just live and let live. But in all cases, the point is that people will do what they do, and despite initial appearances and actions, one shouldn’t judge too harshly. There is often more to these people than we first see. Just as in the opening we are surprised to hear these decent men talk of robbery as they pack their guns, through other portions of the film, we are similarly surprised to see the goodness that arises from apparent scoundrels and the cruelty from those who appear to be upright. Though a minor character, Grannie (Kitty Kirwan) identifies this dichotomy and stresses a need for objectivity and an avoidance of blanket judgment, thus verbalizing a key theme of the film. When she comments on the decency of even one of the questioning policemen, she gives those around her, as well as the audience, something to consider. A different inspector later hammers the point home in his own way: “In my profession, there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That’s all.”
See, for example, Lukey’s (Newton) apparently crass obsession with painting Johnny as he nears death. It’s not so much that he is an unfeeling bastard (though it is some of that), but it’s that he is after something profound, something that applies to everyone, another example of how Reed and company present with subtle accuracy the ties that bind all in this community, and beyond. In painting Johnny in this condition, Lukey is seeking to capture the “truth about us all…he’s doomed.” By this point, Johnny has come to be more than a single man; his plight and current state represent that which faces so many others: entrapment, helplessness, sorrow, confusion, angst.
The famous images of Johnny staring down into the bubbles of his spilled drink make for an evocative sequence. In a desperate state, he sees and hears many of those whom he has encountered in the course of the evening, and he and we become aware of just how interconnected they all are. Each of these individuals, in one way or another, played a part in sealing his fate, and in doing so, their own characters were markedly transformed.
Odd Man Out is broken into three distinct visual segments, each signaled by a change in the weather. The earlier portions of the film—overcast and still—are only minimally decorative, shot in bland grays that scale back to give room for the narrative. But when night falls and rain pours, the city comes alive with atmospheric glistening streets and deep shadows, lending the film a touch of the noirish thriller. As the night goes on and temperatures drop, the rain is replaced by snowfall, and for a time, the film itself slows down for several sequences of somber reflection, as characters are given a chance to question their own values and their own morality. Most intensely moving is the steadfastly loyal Kathleen. Her love toward Johnny is clear from the beginning, but it’s only at the film’s tragic conclusion that we see the full extent of her devotion. Against the bars of a fence as the police close in, Johnny is finally trapped, imprisoned after all. But what happens next proves to be the most surprising and heartbreaking scene of the entire film.
With a motley crew of rag-tag Irish rebels and delinquents, alongside some purely innocent and honest folk, Odd Man Out is an emotional film illustrated by Carol Reed’s first-rate direction. Without ever making a case for its inherent politics, the film presents people, just plain people, caught up in one exceptional night that may or may not have any lasting consequences, but will, in any case, be one remembered by those who played a part in it. In a way, this is true of the film itself. Though still lauded by many, it isn’t typically among those hallmarks of world cinema now held up with the utmost esteem in the pantheon of film history. But for those who have seen it, it’s not easily forgotten.