Program Notes: Odd Man Out (1947)
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The “troubles,” as Ireland’s long-standing friction with the British is often described, has played a huge role in the literature, drama, and films created in and about the Emerald Isle.
Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, from 1947, provides an interesting twist on the topic. Clearly its protagonist, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), is a member of the Irish Republican Army. But screenwriter F.L. Green is aiming for something less topical and more universal, perhaps even poetic, than a straightforward examination of politically-inspired terrorism.
As the film begins Johnny is preparing to end six months of hiding after his escape from prison. He and his associates are robbing a factory payroll, a crime that will give them the cash to underwrite other activities by their movement.
That movement is obviously the I.R.A., but the name of that legendary organization is never mentioned here.
Similarly, the film opens with shots of Belfast, Northern Ireland, but the actual location of the action is never specified.
Right off the bat we realize that Reed’s movie is about more than one location and one movement.
“This story...is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization,” reads an opening title, “but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”
During the telling Odd Man Out becomes a poetic/nightmarish journey as McQueen, who during the robbery kills a factory employee and is in turn wounded, wanders the city, growing increasingly weaker as he takes shelter in a series of hiding places and encounters a variety of colorful and offbeat characters.
I’d not be surprised to learn that Reed and Green were inspired by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, particularly the famous Nighttown sequence in which Leopold Bloom spends an alcohol-fueled night wandering through Dublin.
Here Johnny – terrified of being captured and bitterly regretting that he murdered a man – goes on a similar journey, one that becomes increasingly more bizarre as his loss of blood leads to hallucinations.
While he employs a few on-location establishing shots, director Reed made most of Odd Man Out in the studio. The reasons are obvious – only a studio could provide the control over the lighting and even the elements that Reed required.
Most of the film takes place at night. The weather begins clear, then turns to rain, and finally end with a gentle (and deceptively peaceful) snow.
Robert Krasker’s black-and-white cinematography is full of rich black shadows and dirty brick walls – had Johnny been a simple thug rather than a politically-motivated operative this crime story could easily have been told as classic Hollywood film noir.
And in many ways Odd Man Out serves as an excuse for a large cast of UK actors to happily chew the scenery to splinters.
Maureen Delaney is terrific as a shady woman who at first harbors Johnny’s partners in crime, then sells them out to the police in the hope of a big reward.
William Hartnell is both comic and repugnant as a sort of human rat who hopes to claim the reward for himself.
Robert Newton is practically Shakespearean as a boozy and existentially-challenged artist who holds Johnny prisoner in his seedy garret – not for a reward but so that he might paint the fugitive’s portrait. The dying Johnny represents an intense engagement with life that the self-deceiving artist can only dream of.
There’s a priest who refuses to play sides (or, looked at another way, who plays both sides). A granny who hides weapons under her clothing, knowing that the police wouldn’t think to search her. A pair of middle-aged women who briefly give Johnny shelter and succor...they seem to be playing Mary and Martha to Johnny’s Jesus.
And then there’s Rosie (Fay Compton), in whose house Johnny hid for months and who now believes herself in love with the charismatic outlaw.
Director Reed would go on to have a remarkable career. Two years after this film he shot his masterpiece, The Third Man. Other of his films include the satire Our Man in Havana and even big-budget Hollywood productions like The Agony and the Ecstasy and the musical Oliver!, which would win both best director and best picture Oscars.
Other films in the series “Luck of the Irish”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 2: My Left Foot (1989) Rated R
- March 9: Odd Man Out (1949) Not Rated
- March 16: Once (2006) Rated R
- March 23: Bloody Sunday (2002) Rated R
- March 30: The Commitments (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.