Odd Man Out: Death and the City

Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out, Carol Reed’s first masterpiece, introduced the theme that would shape all of his best films: a stranger’s groping quest through the labyrinth of a great city. The little French boy left to his own confused devices in London (The Fallen Idol), the naive American blundering through occupied Vienna (The Third Man), the sheltered but curious English girl venturing into East Berlin (The Man Between), each gets lost in a deceptive, tilting world. In Odd Man Out (1947), the dying Irish rebel is not in a foreign land, he is an outsider in his own hometown. He wanders among housewives and bartenders, soldiers and urchins, priests and drunken painters, but his progress through a single winter night has mythic ­resonance—an odyssey through the borderland between life and death.

Working with the Australian-born, German-trained cinematographer Robert Krasker, who would also shoot The Third Man (1949), Reed developed his signature vision of the city at night: misty shafts of light probing pools of blackness, bricks and cobblestones glistening with rain, gigantic shadows moving across walls, long alleys tunneling into the screen, desolate squares dotted with the tiny figures of children. While undeniably noir, Reed’s urban nightscapes are never entirely hostile; moments of compassion and humanity gleam amid callousness and betrayal, like lighted windows on dark streets.

Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is already an odd man out when the movie opens. A local chief of “the Organization” (never named but obviously based on the IRA), he has been hiding out in a small house since his escape from prison. The time in jail has changed his mind about the effectiveness of political violence, while being housebound has left him weak, and his confederates no longer trust his leadership. He is contrasted with the levelheaded and competent Dennis (Robert Beatty), who offers to take his place in a planned robbery of a mill. While Dennis will later lead the police on a wild chase over a construction scaffolding and launch a chaotic brawl on a crowded bus, Johnny gets dizzy spells just from sunlight and riding in a car. The viewer shares Johnny’s vertigo through a rapid montage of blurred and tilted shots, establishing an intimate identification with his physical suffering and inner life that is crucial to the film’s power. We often see what Johnny sees, and he often sees what isn’t there.

Reed adapted his filmmaking style to his material—a habit that has made him problematic for auteurist film critics—and here the style undergoes a metamorphosis over the course of the movie. An aerial shot traveling over Belfast opens the film in a documentary key, and the early daylight scenes have a brisk expository style that fits into the postwar trend of neorealist thrillers. A shift begins after Johnny is wounded while fleeing the robbery; as he grows weaker and as nightfall deepens, the film becomes increasingly stylized and phantasmagoric. This one work thus embodies the two seemingly opposed but equally essential sides of British cinema in the 1940s: the austere realism of such dramas as Brief Encounter and the visionary excess exemplified by the films of Powell and Pressburger. On its release, critics generally hailed Odd Man Out (in a London Sunday Chronicle headline, Paul Dehn called it “the best film of all time”), but almost all rejected this transition, praising the gritty, exciting first half while scorning the later scenes filled with expressionist visions and overt philosophizing. But this arc—which is not found in the moralizing source novel—lies at the heart of the film, which follows a passage from ordinary life to the transcendent, desperate intensity of final hours.

Injured, stranded, and on the run, Johnny takes refuge in an air-raid shelter. This dank, cavelike space is a kind of portal to the underworld. When he comes to after hallucinating that he is back in his prison cell, Johnny is a stranger among the living: from here on, every encounter occurs across a widening gulf—starting with the silent, unforgettable appearance of a wary little girl with one roller skate. Still in the shelter, Johnny lurks in the shadows, an awkward observer, as a young couple ducks in for a tryst. (In a wonderfully trivial, unromantic touch, the shy girl tells the boy she has changed her mind, “and besides, I’ve got a sty.”)

Scenes of the mute, powerless Johnny listening to people’s conversations, often as they debate his fate, recur regularly. When he is taken in by two officiously helpful Englishwomen who think he’s been hit by a car, he overhears them arguing with one woman’s husband, who wants to turn him over to the police. Near the end, when he has been hauled home to a gloomy, ruined Victorian mansion by the mad painter Lukey (Robert Newton), he sits enthroned in a chair, listening while Lukey—who wants to paint him in order to capture the look in his eyes—argues with his housemate, Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones), a medical school dropout who wants to patch him up and take him to a hospital. Everyone wants Johnny for a different reason. Lukey wants a muse, Tober wants to save a life, the scavenger and bird seller Shell (F. J. McCormick) wants a reward. Local priest Father Tom (W. G. Fay) wants to save his soul. “He’ll always belong to the Organization,” Dennis says. “He belongs to the law now,” says the cold yet upright police inspector (Denis O’Dea). “Let me have him,” pleads Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), the young woman who loves him.

Helpless, gradually immobilized, the dying Johnny takes on a fantastic, morbid glamour. He’s both pitied and coveted, a prized object and a cursed thing that no one wants. Bartender Fencie (William Hartnell) bribes Lukey to get him out of his pub and dispose of him. Hackney driver Gin Jimmy (Joseph Tomelty), finding Johnny unconscious in his cab, hauls him out and leaves him in a junkyard in the rain, thoughtfully propping him up in an old bathtub. The rain turns to snow, falling alike on the heads of Johnny and a mourning stone angel. (It is impossible not to think here of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” with its snow “general all over Ireland,” falling “upon all the living and the dead.”) The object that everyone fights over, Johnny just wants to live. Again and again, after lapsing into inertia and semiconscious delirium, he drags himself up and walks. Mason is shot from low angles that give him noble stature but also magnify his frailty: limping, lurching, stiffly tottering through the rain, wind, and snow, his overcoat draped around him with the arms flapping, his bloody bandages unwinding and fluttering away. Composer William Alwyn, who wrote some of the film’s score before shooting began, said that James Mason paced his faltering stagger in the final scenes to the rhythm of the majestic, sorrowing theme.

The film is unimaginable without Mason, whose dark beauty and martyrlike charisma make the passive hero riveting. The actor was Reed’s first choice, and he jumped at the role, a radical departure from the sexy sadists in period melodramas (The Man in Grey, Fanny by Gaslight, The Wicked Lady, all from Gainsborough Studios) that had made him England’s most popular heartthrob by the mid-1940s. Soon after Odd Man Out, he would depart for Hollywood, where in 1949 he played another tragic, darkly tender Irishman in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment, one of his finest films. The premise of Odd Man Out might be faulted as schematic: Johnny represents mortality or human extremity, and each of the people he encounters must decide whether to help, ignore, or betray him. But the episodes are compelling because of the way Mason embodies the grotesque pathos, tragic glamour, and seductive vulnerability of the doomed fugitive, and because of the uniform brilliance of the supporting players.

Reed raided Dublin’s Abbey Theatre for much of the Irish cast. There is Cyril Cusack as the craven, thick-witted Pat, who talks big and acts small; Maureen Delaney as the beady-eyed, well-upholstered informer Theresa O’Brien; William Hartnell as the hard, pragmatic bartender Fencie; Kitty Kirwan as the wizened but feisty Grannie, who movingly tells Kathleen about her own youth and her choice not to throw her life away on a doomed rebel like Johnny; and Kathleen Ryan, in her first major film role, who brings such dignified gravity to the young woman determined to help Johnny escape—to death if not to freedom. Around these vivid performances swirls a rich evocation of the city crowds, especially children, who are constantly seen playing in the streets—tough little Belfast boys who taunt the police, brandishing imaginary guns and crowing, “I’m Johnny McQueen!” or clustering around Dennis with outstretched hands, shrilly demanding pennies.

Belfast (the setting, as with the IRA, is assumed to be understood but never named) is a divided city, as is postwar Berlin, the setting of Reed’s second film with Mason, the underrated The Man Between (1953). Reed was never, by his own estimation, a political filmmaker. The wintry, rubble-strewn landscape of Berlin is not a battlefield of ideologies but a haunting backdrop for the mysterious, morally soiled, wearily seductive operator played by Mason. Odd Man Out makes no mention at all of divisions between Catholics and Protestants, or between Republicans and Loyalists. Though Reed collaborated with F. L. Green (and R. C. Sherriff) to adapt Green’s source novel, he eliminated the Protestant, anti-IRA bias of the book, making the film entirely nonpolitical. (In his book on the film, Dai Vaughan neatly sums up the seeming incompatibility of the director’s and author’s visions: “Reed seems to hate no one, whereas Green seems to hate practically everyone.”) The city is divided not between religious or political groups but between selfishness and charity, the cautious neutrality of those who “don’t want to get mixed up in it” and the fleeting courage of those few who act on their pity. At times, only a pane of glass separates Johnny from the alien world of the safe and happy: the oblivious girls laughing in a phone booth, the two boys gazing raptly from a lighted window at the snow. He finds temporary shelter in a cozy living room, or in a beautiful carved-wood and etched-glass booth of the Four Winds Saloon, only to be driven out again into the dark and cold. A bitter gust of wind hits him as he tells the kind, chattering Englishwomen who took him in: “Close the door when I’m gone, and forget me.”

Johnny is dying, but he is also a killer: his first words when Dennis finds him in the air-raid shelter are “Did I kill that man?” It is really his guilt that cuts him off from other people—why they can’t or won’t help him—yet this remains strangely submerged beneath the more immediate fact of his desperate plight. His separation feels existential rather than circumstantial, which is why his final reunion with Kathleen is so moving. In the first scene, we see her kneel down to mend his broken shoelace; when at last she finds him again, the effect is of a pietà rather than a romantic apotheosis. Her love seems less like eros than caritas (that is, charity: “I’m afraid for him if he should die alone”). This chimes with Johnny’s delirious quotation from 1 Corinthians 13; the film implicitly confirms that Kathleen’s love is greater than Father Tom’s “precious particle of faith.”

The sublimely tragic ending, with a steamship’s whistle mourning over the couple’s fallen bodies, echoes the final scenes of such French poetic realist films as Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows and Le jour se lève, in which the hero’s only escape is through death, often self-­inflicted. But Johnny, in his stubborn will to live, is the opposite of fatalistic: the anguished howl with which he briefly silences a crowded pub is more defiant than despairing. It is the unanswerable cry of the man who is dying while others are living.

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