In repertory at Film Forum through September 17.
The great actor James Mason gets top billing in Carol Reed’s moody, noirish 1947 film about a Irish nationalist wounded in a robbery for the cause and abandoned by his crew, but the credits are misleading. Odd Man Out isn’t a star-driven picture, and even though Mason spends more time onscreen than anyone else, a good deal of that time he’s not doing much, just staggering about, slipping in and out of consciousness. His character, the badly injured Johnny McQueen, is in no condition to act; instead, throughout, he is acted upon.
And that’s just one of the ways in which Odd Man Out defies expectations. What initially looks like a thoughtful heist flick turns into a series of character studies with heavy religious undertones. Despite the noirish cinematographic touches, the movie doesn’t have much in common, thematically, with the genre. And despite the title card’s assurances that the movie is “not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization,” clearly meant to be the IRA, that’s not precisely true. Odd Man Out dramatically portrays a town under lockdown, where citizens can’t trust the police or one another, where people are gunned down in the streets. The question of who is ultimately at fault—the British police or the Irish nationalists—might not be the focus, but the ramifications of that conflict are.
As the film opens, Mason’s Johnny is preparing to lead an armed, daylight robbery of a factory to raise funds for The Organization (as it is always called in Odd Man Out), but his accomplices are concerned that he’s not up for the job. Johnny escaped from jail a few months previous and has been closed up in a safehouse ever since, so this will be his first time outside in more than a year. Nevertheless, he insists on participating in the mission. The robbery itself is a success—the crew seizes the expected cash—but the alarm is raised as they’re leaving the building, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sun, and a security guard confronts him. In their struggle, both Johnny and the guard are shot. The other Organization members manage to haul Johnny into the getaway car, but the driver is reckless, Johnny falls out, and in their panic, the others leave him behind. Back at the safehouse, Kathleen (Kathleen Sullivan), who loves Johnny, resolves to save him. As for the disoriented, bleeding Johnny, he stumbles from place to place, and those who find him have to decide what to do with the dying Organization leader.
And that’s where the character studies come in. Over the course of one fateful, snowy evening, Johnny and his crew and Kathleen, searching for him, cross the paths of people from all walks of life: an old Catholic priest who has known Johnny since he was a boy; a bar owner fearful of the Organization; two ordinary, middle-aged women who have studied first aid but know a gunshot wound when they see one; an unstable, possibly manic-depressive artist eager to paint someone facing Death; a pair of lovestruck teenagers looking for someplace private to make out; a stern police inspector who feels sorry for Kathleen, up to a point; and many others.
Inevitably, some parts of this episodic story are stronger than others. That sequence with the two women, for example, is wonderfully taut as they gradually piece together who their wounded young man really is. A sequence in which Father Tom tries to convince a mercenary, none-too-bright bum that he would be better off bringing Johnny to the church for a heavenly blessing rather than to the police for a monetary reward drags a bit. And a scene in which Johnny experiences bizarre hallucinations of people shouting at from soap bubbles hasn’t aged well, though a later scene, in which a group of framed portraits loom accusingly over him, manages to be eerie and disquieting, despite the relatively primative special effects.
Throughout all episodes, though, Odd Man Out recognizes everyone’s humanity, even those would turn on our sympathetic (anti-)hero. And the noirish cinematography, with its long, dramatic shadows, gives even the weaker passages a striking, evocative look. Director Carol Reed would go on to helm The Third Man, which is nothing short of a masterpiece (it helps that Graham Greene wrote that one), and you can see the roots of that superior film in Odd Man Out—not itself a masterpiece but a memorable, compelling movie all the same.