• Odd Man Out

    By Michael Sragow

    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.

13 comments

  • By Andrew Zindilis
    February 25, 2009
    09:05 PM

    Odd Man Out is journey through dark side of alice in wonderland.I am amazed that top filmmakers and critics/historians have not mentioned this reeds masterpiece. I hope you guys will release in top of the line Blu Ray etc...
    Reply
  • By David Reader
    May 23, 2009
    08:35 PM

    Is "Odd Man Out" available from Criterion? Thank you. Regards, David P Reader
    Reply
  • By john sorensen
    October 01, 2009
    10:30 AM

    Is "odd man out" scheduled to be released any time soon? thank you john sorensen
    Reply
  • By William Linsley
    November 02, 2009
    10:51 AM

    I myself am eagerly hoping that sometime in the not-too-distant future Criterion will issue a release of this wonderful film, which deserves to be more widely known than it is. It is probably my favorite movie of all time.
    Reply
  • By William Messing
    December 22, 2009
    02:46 PM

    I saw the restored 35 mm print of Odd Man Out last evening. Compared with earlier times that I have seen the film, going back to the mid 1950's, this was, visually, a revelation. I want to echo the requests of others. Criterion should release this film as soon as possible.
    Reply
  • By Mel Weinstein
    September 02, 2010
    12:42 PM

    I also want a good release of Odd Man Out. I have loved it since I first saw it in a film class in 1960. Amazing how well it holds up. There is also a commentary film from that period which brilliantly explored all of the symbols that Reed put in the film. There were things that I hadn't realized like the ever present clock, the changing weather reflecting the darker mood of the story, Johnny as the wounded bird, etc. I have looked for this film but can't find it. It would be a great addition to any package, if it still exists. This film is like a classic Greek Tragedy. One knows from the beginning that it will end badly. It is only the twists and turns as the protagonists try to avoid their obvious fate. From what I have read, Kathleen was supposed to kill Johnny to save him but the present ending is far better as a classic Liebestod. Reed did much fine work but NEVER better than the three great films of this period, Odd Man Out, Fallen Idol, The Third Man. The Third Man is out in a fine package, as is “Idol,” and this should be with it. There has not been an available restored edition of Odd Man Out, save for some poor foreign copies. How about it?
    Reply
  • By louis COPPOLA
    April 01, 2011
    11:18 AM

    Odd Man Out What a great movie! I would love to see this on blu-ray.
    Reply
  • By LJ
    April 01, 2011
    08:32 PM

    This would be one for the ages if Criterion could bring Odd Man Out on BD.
    Reply
  • By Lawrence Russ
    June 28, 2012
    07:25 AM

    I second the motion of those who regard this as a great film, and who would be thrilled if you would come out with a restored Blu-Ray rendition of it. I would order at least one copy immediately.
    Reply
  • By Simon
    June 28, 2012
    07:53 AM

    Network has just released a restored blu-ray in the UK. Sourced from a 35mm dupe neg, which they compared to the original nitrate fine grain master held by the BFI and found to be in far better shape. Digitally restored, and receiving raves so far. Region B locked though.
    Reply
  • By Mel Weinstein
    September 11, 2012
    09:08 AM

    Do it Dammit. Tired of waiting. No good copy available.
    Reply
  • By Drew Phillips
    January 12, 2013
    02:48 PM

    This was posted on the exact day I was born. Sweet Jesus. Hope it comes back soon!
    Reply
  • By Katt
    January 19, 2014
    07:12 PM

    OMO.......bring it.
    Reply

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