Sunday, September 26, 2010

Odd Man Out (1947)

"This story is told against the background of political unrest in a city in Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved."

In Odd Man Out, producer and director Carol Reed blends film noir with poetic realism, while trying to remain apolitical. Based on the novel by F. L. Green, the film tells the story of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), who is a district chief of a rebel organization, and the people who exploit his fate.

The film won the British Film Academy's award for the Best British Motion Picture of 1947. Rich in allegory, the story counts the last eight hours of Johnny’s life; a tower clock rings away his hours, daylight fades to night, and rain turns to thick snow. Thematically, Odd Man Out is about reactions to suffering, fate, and faith.

In 1948, the film was nominated for an Oscar in Best Film Editing. The film opens with an aerial shot of a gray city of troubles, and focuses on a tower clock striking 4:00 PM. From the tower clock, the camera tilts down and pans to a man, who walks into a safe house, where we meet Johnny McQueen. Sitting in a windowsill, Johnny instructs his gang about their payroll heist which is scheduled for 5:00 PM at a textile mill. The opening sequence is smooth and continuous, introducing us to the city, the main character, his mission, his gang, and Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) who loves Johnny.

Reed quickly shows Johnny’s internal conflict. Although disillusioned with violence as a means to political ends, Johnny prepares to carry out his organization’s orders. He will lead the mill robbery. His existential choices are few and narrow. He is an organization man with limited freedom, flowing in a river of fate.

Next, Reed moves to Johnny’s external conflicts. Johnny is physically and mentally unfit for the heist. Having been confined to a prison for several years and a safe house for several months, Johnny is now out-of-touch with the reality of armed robbery. Kathleen begs Johnny not to lead the heist, but he ignores her plea. Sensing Johnny’s weakness, his gang doubts his ability to lead the robbery, stirring tension and foreshadowing trouble.

The payroll heist progresses smoothly until Johnny becomes disoriented during the escape. In Johnny’s moment of hesitation, shown through first person point of view, fate steps in and irrevocably alters his path.

Johnny and a mill guard exchange gunfire, wounding Johnny in the shoulder and collapsing the guard. Before Johnny can get into the getaway car, the driver pulls away, speeding down the road as Johnny clings to the car window. Panicking, the driver refuses to slow down, spilling Johnny onto the street. Indecisive, the driver does not return to pick him up.

Johnny McQueen is the odd man out. For the next seven hours, as he flees a squeezing police manhunt, Johnny struggles to find his way to a safe house, meeting a random array of people, who intertwine with his destiny. We witness citizens who exploit, sympathize, or avoid Johnny’s dilemma. He is a walking conflict for those who meet him - a wounded robber, who has shot a man, and who carries political repercussions. Johnny travels the antihero’s journey.

After falling from the car, Johnny hides in a dark air raid shelter. From this point on, Johnny will not see daylight again. Severely wounded, he hallucinates imaging he is in a prison, displayed in the first-person view. Throughout the film, Johnny’s hallucinations fuse with the vicious reality of his predicament.

In five different scenes in the film, Reed presents Johnny in the first person point of view. We see what Johnny sees, feeling his disorientation and pain. The first person scenes are brief, but effective. First person view transfers Johnny’s emotions to us.

In fact, Reed sculpts the character of Johnny McQueen by showing Johnny in several views: not only first person point of view, but third person omniscient close-up, medium, and long distances. In addition, Reed shows the conflicted reactions of supporting characters to Johnny’s anguish and status, augmenting the main character. We see Johnny through his eyes, the eyes of supporting characters, and our eyes, all of which flow from Reed’s eye.

Like the supporting characters, as viewers we react to Johnny too. Subtly, Reed binds us to Johnny’s plight, drawing on our compassionate, but conflicted emotions.

Bleeding, Johnny leaves the shelter for the city’s maze, stumbling through its dark, wet streets, alleys, and junkyards. He meets street children, a loyal gang member, and Good Samaritans. At film midpoint, he realizes he is doomed. From the Samaritans, Johnny learns he has killed the mill guard. When Johnny leaves their house, he says, “Close the door when I am gone, and forget me.”

Robert Krasker, the film’s photographer, composes striking expressionist shots in the code of classic film noir. Born in Australia, his photography rivals his expressionist contemporaries: John Alton, Nicholas Musuraca, and Gregg Toland. Connoisseurs of The Third Man (1949) will recognize Krasker’s photography in Odd Man Out.

As rain starts to fall, Johnny crawls into a taxi, collapsing in semi-consciousness. Not wanting trouble from the authorities nor the rebels, the taxi driver dumps Johnny in a junkyard with statues of angels. Immediately, a street peddler (F.J. McCormick) spots Johnny, and schemes to gain a reward for turning in Johnny, but doesn’t care whether the reward comes from the rebel organization, authorities, or church. Leaving Johnny behind, the peddler runs off to find Johnny’s priest.

While the peddler negotiates a reward from Father Tom (W.G. Fay) who wants to hear Johnny’s confession, Johnny regains consciousness and leaves the junkyard. Eventually, he staggers into a pub. But the publican doesn’t want trouble either and hides Johnny in a booth, where Johnny hallucinates, in first person view again. As Johnny shouts in delirium, a half-crazed artist (Robert Newton) discovers him; overjoyed, the artist wants to paint Johnny’s dying eyes.

As rain turns to snow, the artist takes Johnny to an abandoned mansion, where he, the peddler, and a quack doctor (Elwyn Brooks-Jones) live as squatters. In the decaying manor, the quack dresses Johnny’s wounds, while the artist paints Johnny. Again Johnny hallucinates, as the artist, peddler, and quack argue about Johnny, fate, and faith. In delirium, reciting First Corinthians 13, Johnny proclaims, “I am nothing.”

James Mason delivers a hypnotic performance, which he considered the best of his career. Reed, whose father was a renowned actor of the London stage, draws out the best in Mason’s acting. Although Johnny’s dialogue is sparse throughout the film, Mason’s facial expressions and gestures of suffering connect with our neurons, pulling up our sympathy. The film made Mason an international star. Punctuating Mason’s appearances, William Alwyn’s musical score weighs solemnly and heavily, coloring character and mood in slate-gray.

In the third act, as heavy snowflakes fall in scenes of abstract expressionism, Reed shifts into high gear of poetic realism. Learning about Johnny’s whereabouts from the peddler, Kathleen finds Johnny, who is half-blind by now, near the city’s tower clock. She expresses her love for him, realizing it is a love they cannot share in life. She wants to spare Johnny from prison and government execution, and keep him forever. Backed up against an iron fence as police close in, Kathleen holds Johnny and shoots at police. A police machine gun bursts. A ship’s horn blasts. The tower clock strikes midnight.

With a powerfully aesthetic story, Reed incites our subconscious emotions, while lifting our cognitive conscious to a metaphysical plane.

In the late 1940s, Reed performed at the peak of his craft, when in addition to Odd Man Out (1947), he directed Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949) - his triple crown. In 1953, Carol Reed was knighted for his contributions to British cinema.

Odd Man Out would probably have been Reed’s greatest work, had it not been overshadowed by The Third Man.


Written by Hard-Boiled Rick


  1. Lovely commentary on this film. Everyone should see it. Maybe you should put a spolier warning at the beginning for those who have not seen the film. One of my all time favorite movies. Thanks for posting.

  2. leonardbloom63@yahoo.com4:38 PM, January 05, 2012

    How can I get a copy (DVD) of "Odd Man Out?" I am doing a 3-series library showing of a Bogart, Mitchem and Welles film starting this month.


    Len Bloom Sarasota, FL email:

  3. Len

    It is on Netflix


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