Odd Man Out, 1947, Carol Reed
Odd Man Out was the first of a series of three films that essentially put Carol Reed into the conversation as a major auteur of the post-war period. The other two are The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, the latter of which is considered his masterpiece. It currently is #73 on BFI’s Sight and Sound poll and is consider the #1 British film of all time. Reed’s later work had some success, even if not quite as celebrated on a historical scale. He is appropriately remembered for these three, all of which have some similarities in style, yet are thematically different.
Odd Man Out is also remembered as one of the few films to feature Northern Ireland politics as a major setting. Another is John Ford’s The Informer, which would be a major influence on the Reed film. The politics of the IRA at the time were complicated, as they were in subsequent decades, and I don’t believe that Reed was trying to make a political statement of any sort. He simply adapted a novel with an Irish setting and used the political landscape as the backdrop to explore some major themes about humanity.
This was also James Mason’s breakthrough role, and I consider it to be one of the best performances of his career. His character Johnny is the leader of the local IRA group, and they rob a mill in order to acquire funds. Things go wrong when a renegade employee pursues the group with a gun. After a struggle, he shoots Johnny, who returns fire and kills the man. Johnny is wounded and tries to escape with his gang, but falls from the getaway car into no man’s land. From here, he is the title character as he literally is the odd man out of the group, although not by design.
Johnny is gravely wounded, yet because of the crime and fatality, the police are after the local rebel. The relations between the armed police and the citizens are the scenes where the political situation is addressed. Many of the locals seem to be on Johnny’s side whereas the police desperately want him captured and order restored. People assist Johnny in eluding his captors, sometimes by accident, but they do not immediately report his location. A household takes him in at one point, not realizing who he is, and they try to help with his injuries. Once they realize who he is, they let him go to wander the streets, but they do not turn him in. They simply want no part of the situation, probably because even though they support Johnny and his people, they do not want trouble from the authorities. Others assist him as well, and later when someone attempts to turn him in, it is to a local priest and only for some sort of reward.
As Johnny’s physical state deteriorates, his mental state follows. He fades in and out of consciousness, at times reaching a delusional state where he sees hallucinations. This is where Mason’s performance stands out. He often has very little dialog to say, and instead spends a lot of his screen time looking weathered and emaciated. When he does speak, it is often murmuring and sometimes rambling. Often his performance is merely physical, and he does as much with his movements, mannerisms and expressions as he does with words.
Even though Johnny is technically a rebel, murderer and criminal, he is portrayed as a benevolent person. When he is lucid, he wonders whether he accidentally killed the man at the mill. It pains him when he learns that the man is dead, not just for his own fate as a criminal, but because of his guilty conscience. He is expressly non-violent. At one point he hallucinates a policeman who he treats of as a confessionary, a plot point that will come back into play later.
The church is continually involved in the film, both from a thematic sense and directly within the plot. Religion is at the forefront of the film, and becomes expressed through the character. When “Shell” gets wind of Johnny’s location, he uses an analogy of Johnny being one of his birds, and essentially tries to get a reward for this message from the church. Rather than giving any monetary reward, which they could not offer anyway, they instead give him the promise of spiritual rewards. By delivering Johnny to the church (and by extension, to God) “Shell” is one step closer to salvation.
As a product of the thick religious theme, Johnny becomes a messianic character. As he is being bandaged up by a local group, his physical health deteriorating and visions increasing, he quotes the bible. He says ““I remember when I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought as a child; I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This bit of scripture is from Corinthians chapter 13, which is coincidentally enough, the chapter on “Love,” and is often quoted in positive and selfless context. Is Johnny becoming an instrument of God? Through his delusion, is he preaching for people to become more passive, loving, and accepting of God so that they will reach salvation? Is Johnny merely trying to achieve his own salvation out of guilt for his actions and the potential sacrifice to come? The film does not answer any of these questions definitively and it shouldn’t. That is one of its strengths, as it cannot give the answers, but it promotes spiritual and ethical exploration.
One of the constant motifs is about death. Tying into the religious theme, at one point the priest says, “This life is nothing but a trial for the life to come.” It is perhaps Johnny’s trial. In another scene, a character is asked what faith means. “Only one man had it,” he responds, probably referring to Jesus, although possibly in the context of the film, to Johnny. He continues by saying that “It is life.” Much of the film is concerned with whether Johnny will live or die, and it is through his love, Kathleen, that this answer is revealed at the end of the film. I will not give that answer here and spoil the film, but I will say that the ending punctuates much of what I have discussed here. It creates more questions than it answers, and that sort of ambiguity (along with a number of filmic strengths that I have not discussed) is what makes this a classic.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Template for the Troubles: John Hill on Odd Man Out: 2014 interview with a scholar on Northern Ireland.
He calls this the first film to portray the urban Northern Island situation since the partition in 1921. IRA activity had not been significant before the film. During WW2, the members were interned. The film is sympathetic to the organization and Johnny.
The city in Odd Man Out is not named, but is implied to be Belfast. There are some overhead establishing shots of Belfast, but most of the film was shot around Shoreditch, London or in Denham Studio in London. They created a model of the large clock, which would play a major part in the visuals, and they recreated the Crown Bar from Belfast in Denham studio.
Postwar Poetry: Carol Reed and Odd Man Out: This is a short documentary made for Criterion Collection in 2014.
They discuss the film in detail, from its origins when Reed read the book in 1945 and began shooting in 1946, to its legacy. One contributor calls it the British High Noon because you are so aware of the time throughout the film.
They speak about this film in the context of the other Reed films, including his prior and later films. One element that sets apart the three films is that they are shot at night and they exhibit an excellent use of darkness. Previously filming at night was not an option for Reed because he did not have the budget. There were other characteristics of a Reed film, such as that it had a cluttered frame and was shot documentary style.
Home, James: This 1972 documentary is a personal look through Mason’s eyes at his hometown of Huddersfield.
Mason narrates and they show scenes of people living, working, walking and going about his town. Much of the movie is about the economy, population, and industry. He spends a lot of time looking at the various local companies that operate in Huddersfield, and he speaks gushingly of the respectable type of person that lives in the town, whether they are a lower class worker or an upper class business owner. You could call it a fluff piece, as a critical words is hardly uttered.
Mason has a familiar slow and relaxed manner of speaking, which works well in film and his dialog benefits from this manner of speaking. I once joked that Mason’s voice would be enjoyable reading a phone book. After seeing this documentary, my opinion has changed. This film appears to have been created for local educational TV as a way of glorifying the city. Mason indubitably had plenty of hometown pride, but from an outsider, this is not exactly gripping subject material. It actually took me away from the film. A supplement about Mason would have been terrific, but this seemed like it did not belong. Film Rating: 3/10
Collaborative Composition: Scoring Odd Man Out: This is a piece about William Alwyn’s score with Jeff Smith.
I did not discuss many of the exemplary technical elements in my review, but the score is absolutely brilliant. Johnny’s theme is especially memorable and really fits well with his plight. As a result, this was my favorite supplement on the disc and it brought me back after seeing the dull documentary.
In a way, the score was experimental. Alwyn did not believe in “wall-to-wall” score with endless silence. He believed that there should be musical silence in plaes. He worked with sound editor to determine when to use score and when to use sound effects.
Smith plays all of the themes on the piano, which are for the characters of Johnny, Kathleen, Shell. Alwyn only deviated slightly from these themes. For instance he would play a delirium sound when Johnny hallucinates or loses his mind.
Alwyn was a major influence on the merits of pre-scoring a film and working with a collaborative team. Many famous conductors would write the score after the first rough cut of the film was completed. Alwyn pre-scored Odd Man Out based on the script. Others have followed, with the most notable example being Ennio Morricone with Once Upon a Time in the West where he played the theme for the actors.
Even though he had a highly successful career, Alwyn considered Odd Man Out his crowning achievement.
Suspense, Episode 460: February 1952 broadcast with primary cast.
This was another radio broadcast with cast members from the film. Since it is relatively short, it is an easy listen, even if the film language does not translate well to radio. Mason’s voice work is key in this version, beginning with him using his character to establish the heist debacle. “I’m hurt!!!” he yells loudly.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10