Review: Odd Man Out (1947)

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Odd Man Out (1947)

Directed by: Carol Reed | 116 minutes | drama, thriller, crime | Actors: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan, FJ McCormick, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, Denis O’Dea, WG Fay, Maureen Delaney, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Robert Beatty, Dan O’Herlihy, Kitty Kirwan, Beryl Measor, Roy Irving, Joseph Tomelty, Arthur Hambling, Ann Clery, Maura Milligan, Maureen Cusack, Wilfrid Brambell, Dora Bryan, Eddie Byrne, Harry Hutchinson, Geoffrey Keen, Madam Kirkwood-Hackett, Pat McGrath, Maurice Millard, Noel Purcell, Guy Rolfe

Director Carol Reed (1906-1976) was known for his subtle approach to suspense thrillers. His early films are a mixed bag from social dramas (“Bank Holiday”) to wacky comedies (“Climbing High,” both 1938). His first major film, ‘The Stars Look Down’ (1940) described the rise of an idealistic miner’s son to take a government seat. He then directed one of Britain’s better propaganda films, ‘The Way Ahead’ (1944). After the war, Reed took off with a trilogy that revealed a deeper and darker side of himself—fatalistic and full of tragic irony. ‘Odd Man Out’ (1947) follows the last hours of a fleeing Irish nationalist in Belfast. In ‘The Fallen Idol’ (1948), a diplomat’s son believes the only man he cares about has committed murder; in ‘The Third Man’ (1949), a naive American has to realize that his best friend is an exploiter and a murderer. Graham Greene wrote the script for the last two films. ‘The Third Man’ became an instant classic. In this film, Reed’s strengths – his sense of location and his fine nose for casting and directing actors – peaked.

‘Odd Man Out’, the film that marked Reed’s international breakthrough, is based on a novel by FL Green, who also co-wrote the script. James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, a rebel leader in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who represents ‘the organization’. Although the name IRA is never mentioned, it should be clear that reference is made to that organization. McQueen recently escaped prison and is hiding out with his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) and her grandmother. Although he’s not quite there yet, Johnny can’t help but get involved in political actions. Together with some friends, he decides to rob the local post office, in order to increase the organisation’s coffers. Although his friend Dennis (Robert Beatty) advises him to stay at home, Johnny goes along anyway. During the robbery, however, he blacks out and in a panic shoots and kills a man. He also gets injured himself. It’s too dangerous for his friends to wait for him, so he runs off alone. In the bleak, narrow streets of Belfast, he tries to hide from the police. However, he becomes more and more weakened that he can no longer hide. However, the people he encounters are not all equally disposed towards him. Kathleen, meanwhile, is determined to save Johnny and sets out to find him.

Although Reed’s peak would only follow two years later (‘The Third Man’), he already shows a pretty impressive dose of craftsmanship with ‘Odd Man Out’. The filmmaker liked to be in control (for example, for ‘Odd Man Out’ he also took care of the production), so that he could make everything his own way. In ‘Odd Man Out’ this urge for perfection is best expressed in the atmospheric setting. The nighttime Belfast from this film is grim, realistic and oppressive, making ‘Odd Man Out’ somewhat like an expressionistic fever dream. During his fateful flight, Johnny McQueen discovers that the people he trusted don’t want to take any chances for him. He goes from one to the other, but everyone has an excuse to refuse him help. His injuries make Johnny delirious and his feverish reflections make him realize that he is completely alone. The music and the shadowy black and white images add to the moral ambiguity of the film. For this, Reed owes much to Robert Krasker, the acclaimed cinematographer who previously shot ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945) for David Lean and who went on to win an Oscar for ‘The Third Man’. It is mainly thanks to his work that ‘Odd Man Out’ can visually compete with the work of the legendary German expressionists Murnau and Lang.

Where ‘Odd Man Out’ falls short, however, is the acting. Not that James Mason isn’t a reliable protagonist – quite the contrary! Usually this sublime and quintessentially British actor puts on a great performance. But the role of Johnny McQueen, who wanders around Belfast like a zombie for an hour and a half, just isn’t challenging enough for someone of his qualities. He has hardly any text and in fact only has to wander around in exasperation and pain. He may well do that, but the role is simply not interesting enough. Incidentally, Mason has said more than once that he considered his role in ‘Odd Man Out’ one of the best of his career. Strange… The supporting characters are not all equally interesting. That has nothing to do with Kathleen Ryan, by the way; she plays her part properly and also portrays one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. Robert Beatty and WG Fay (as the local pastor) are also not to blame. Things go awry, though, when FJ McCormick and Robert Newton get involved. Their characters – a feeble-minded birdwatcher and a manic amateur painter – are annoying and distracting from the events (which just as soon as they come into the picture build up to a climax). These grotesque figures should have been left out. Perhaps Reed felt obligated to offer the then wildly popular Newton—a notorious alcoholic who would drink himself when he was 50—a part in his film. Completely unnecessary.

‘Odd Man Out’ clearly loses to Reed’s masterpiece ‘The Third Man’. Nevertheless, the director already shows what he has to offer (thanks to the legendary cameraman Robert Krasker). The acting is somewhat disappointing and the characters are not appealing enough, but in terms of tension, atmosphere and eye for detail, this breakthrough film by Reed is fine. From a political thriller ‘Odd Man Out’ grows into a gripping reflection on human existence that will continue to fascinate film fans.

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