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After escaping from prison and lying low for months in a cramped row-house, the chief of Northern Island’s revolutionary Organization, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), has plotted a payroll robbery. Speaking softly and rapidly, gently sliding open a window to air out the tiny upstairs room, he exerts charismatic control over his fellow rebels. When the hothead driver (Cyril Cusack) brandishes a weapon, Johnny urges them all to go easy with their guns, and the queasiness in his voice unsettles the Organization’s second-in-command, Dennis (Robert Beatty). Neither Dennis nor Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), Johnny’s host and not-so-secret admirer, can persuade him to stay safely in the hideout and let Dennis carry the load. As soon as Johnny swings into the passenger’s seat, something goes wrong in his head. The street rises and falls before him—it seems to track into his brain—and the buildings tower over him with vertiginous force. The sunlight confuses and dizzies him as he approaches their target; after the job, he again grows faint and hesitates. A chaotic exchange of shots leaves a company man dead and Johnny too seriously wounded to hang on to the speeding getaway car.
At a point where most movies would climax, Odd Man Out begins. This story of police pursuit concentrates on the souls of the fugitive and the men and women who briefly harbor him; it makes Johnny’s search for salvation the source of gut-clenching suspense. It climbs to peak intensity not during shootouts or close calls, but when Johnny—unable to locate anyone who can or will heal or succor him—rouses himself from delirium to proclaim (from Corinthians), “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not Charity, I am become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” This 1946 production is one of the screen’s resounding tragedies, yet the hero’s downfall is caused by tragic virtue. Johnny’s pangs and twinges during the heist aren’t merely physical or psychological; they bespeak his troubled conscience about terrorism. Afterwards, with his own life hanging by a frayed strand, his main concern is whether he killed a man. When he discovers that he did, his moral wound is as debilitating as his mortal one. What makes the movie almost unbearably heartrending is that Johnny, as he’s dying, is stumbling toward transcendence-and the only people willing to help him achieve it are Kathleen and Father Tom (W. G. Fay), who can’t hook up with him, and a bird-dealer/street hustler, Shell (F. J. McCormick), who’s weak and addled. Working from a script by F. L. Green and R. C. Sherriff (from Green’s 1945 novel), the producer-director, Carol Reed, creates a world that’s a fragmented and fragmenting place where the soul cracks and flies apart. While Odd Man Out is the most compassionate of movies, it’s a poetic summary of twentieth century harshness—of what can be called the inhuman condition.
To quibblers, the supposedly overblown, parable elements of the script seriously mar Reed’s accomplishment-particularly the characters of Shell’s housemates, Tober (Elwyn Brook Jones), a failed med student, and Lukey (Robert Newton), a frustrated painter, who argue over whether it’s nobler to save Johnny’s body in a hospital or preserve his soul on canvas. Lukey is hyperbolic, and at their worst, his scenes delay the action to debate philosophical points. But anyone who responds to the film intuitively can tell that Reed aims to surpass naturalism from frame one. Even before sudden, dislocating visual shifts reflect the Chief’s jarred perspective en route to the robbery, the subtle cut to an overhead shot of Johnny climbing into the auto suggests the universe is weighing down on him. Even before that-during Johnny’s instruction to the boys-Reed insinuates details that stick in the mind like the opening lines in a fairy tale. Johnny says that it will snow later, and, of course, it does; by then, he’s wavering through the eddying flakes like an invisible man. The people Johnny meets in flight are both real and unreal, boldly drawn and sometime mythic yet never merely “innocent” or “evil.” They include a couple of decent middle-class women (Fay Compton, Beryl Measor) who know First Aid and are capable only of giving him that, and a tippling coachman (Joseph Tomelty) who inadvertently takes him through a police cordon and then drops him in limbo. They’re not-so-good-Samaritans, and not so bad, either. The Head Constable (Denis O’Dea) is an unyielding enforcer of the law who nevertheless wants to protect Kathleen—and Father Tom is able to see her love for Johnny as redemptive though it leads her into sin.
Cinematographer Robert Krasker fills his nightscapes with wraithlike shadows and dazzling illuminations. He achieves amazing depth of field without the sharp, clean contours we associate with depth of focus; draping Reed’s people in mists or spotting them in streetlights and headlamps, outlining them in doorways or profiling them against window shades, Krasker conjures an atmosphere that a viewer’s eyes sift excitedly. Through it all, James Mason crawls and crumples his way to immortality. He manages to give a passionate performance as a man who must measure the rest of his life out in heartbeats. His famous baritone voice reduced to a plangent whisper, he acts with the angles of his face and the gleam of his eyes. Under Reed’s loving lens, he turns a passive character into a quester.
In his novel, Green depicts the revolutionaries as twisted, pitiable creatures. The quality of Reed’s mercy is not strained. He sees rebels, lawmen, and the men and women whose sympathies are numbed or torn as wanderers in the night. Odd Man Out puts astonishing film craft at the service of a unique humane vision. We may never see its like again.