Program Notes: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

When your resume features two of the most beloved movie musicals of all time – West Side Story and The Sound of Music – you can excuse the public for thinking of you first and foremost as a director of musicals.

But Robert Wise excelled at many genres. Especially film noir.

His early career prepared Wise for films expressing the dark, criminal side of American life. Two of his early credits as director, the horror entries Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (’45), featured the moody black-and-white photography and nighttime settings that would become the hallmarks of noir.

Wise’s A Game of Death (’45), about a madman who hunts humans on his private preserve, Criminal Court (‘46), Born to Kill (’47) and the boxing drama The Set-Up (’49) all featured noirish elements.

And in 1955’s Somebody Up There Likes Me he insisted on filming on New York’s mean streets, bringing a special authenticity to the story of fighter Rocky Graziano.

Film Screening:
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Saturday, Jan. 21 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

But these were merely dry runs for Odds Against Tomorrow (’59), a crime caper film fairly overflowing with fatalism, striking b&w images and some really fine performances.

The film finds three down-and-out lowlifes – a career criminal (Robert Ryan), a corrupt ex-cop (Ed Begley) and a nightclub entertainer and luckless gambler (Harry Belafonte) – teaming up to steal a factory payroll in a small town outside New York City.

But while Odds... functions well as a heist movie, Wise and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky (at the time a victim of the black list and writing under a pseudonym) had bigger fish to fry.

Seizing upon Belafonte’s growing skills as an actor (he came to fame, of course, as a singer of Caribbean music), they pitched Odds... as a crime drama about race. Belafonte, in fact, produced the movie through his own production company.

Two story lines generate the film’s tension. First there’s the crime itself, carefully planned by the perps (though not so carefully as they think), with its attendant elements of greed and the characters’ self-destructive tendencies.

And then there’s the relationship of Ryan’s Earle Slater and Belafonte’s Johnny Ingram.

Ryan’s Slater is a racist – one of the ugliest racists ever depicted on film. In an early scene he bumps into a little black girl – she’s running on the sidewalk with her playmates.

Slater picks her up, holds her at arm’s length and says: “You little pickaninny...you’re going to kill yourself flyin’ like that. Yes you are.”

There’s a smile on his face but the hatred behind it comes through loud and clear. The statement almost feels like a threat.

It’s for scenes like this that the movie received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Film Promoting International Understanding. It lost to The Diary of Anne Frank.

Odds Against Tomorrow is noteworthy for many other reasons.

It was the first noir film to star an African American leading man.

It featured an overtly gay character (played by Richard Bright) at a time when even veiled references to homosexuality were considered too much for the moviegoing public.

Wise isn’t often thought of as a technical innovator, but in this film he toyed with different film stocks. In the opening sequence Ryan walks down a New York City street. The sun is out, but the sky is dark and brooding.

Wise achieved the effect by using infrared film, which gave the familiar cityscape an almost alien feel.

Look for Wayne Rogers (later of TV’s M*A*S*H) as a soldier Ryan beats up and Cicely Tyson (Sounder) as a woman in a barroom scene.

See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.

Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

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's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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