Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is a late noir cycle race-relations civil-rights and jazz-fuelled minor heist film noir movie produced and directed by Robert Wise, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley, Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame. 

Odds Against Tomorrow is one of the last films to appear in the classic noir cycle, and is notable for a plot which features a serious commentary on racism.

If there were to be such a sub-genre as arthouse-noir from the late 1950s, Odds Against Tomorrow would qualify. The score is by The Modern Jazz Quartet, so it would be hard to groove harder than that in the late-noir groove-yard of arthouse heist noir.

As well as the most solid of noir tropes, such as the ex-soldier turned to crime, and the massive dose of 'one last job' which everybody seems to be on, there are also dramatic shots of birds in flight, city landscapes and children at play, all set to that arty jazz soundtrack by John Lewis —  and even some experimental infra-red photography.

It makes a fresh change to the style which was in fact about to go our of style, and which may well be said to have already ended, or perhaps be about to end one year later with the production of Psycho (1960)

Robert Ryan opens up the Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

The amazing world weariness of everyone in Odds Against Tomorrow give it a high class feel, and a unique once-seen and never-forgotten quality. The two men who are central to the job and to the story of failed race relations — played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte — are seen in full — at home and at rest, with their women and with their failings on display, both having their different reasons for wanting to take on this one last job.

Whistlin' doom in the elevators of New York in
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

The story shows David Burke (Ed Begley) who is an aging, disgraced former cop whose career was destroyed when he refused to cooperate with state crime investigators. To get back into some money, Burke has planned the robbery of a small-town bank in Upstate New York. 

Ed Begley in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

To assist him with this rather simple plan, he recruits Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), who is an an ill-tempered, racist and ex-solider and ex-con from Oklahoma who is being supported — much to his humiliation — by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters).

Shelley Winters in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

The other half of the explosive combination is Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), who is fancy-looking and high-living jazz musician and gambling addict who doesn't want to take part in the holdup at all, but reluctantly agrees to do so, since his losses at the racetrack have left him dangerously in debt to a mobster. 

When the trio comes together, Robert Ryan's n-word bustin' character Slater is none too happy to discover that he will be working alongside an African American man and the racial tensions between him and Ingram soon threaten to explode and derail the plan.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

In fact, the tension does a little more than simply threaten to explode, although the threatening is definitely an important part of the long dramatic build up. 

Just as we see Robert Ryan's character drinking alone and angry and then cuddling hard into his supportive girlfriend, we see Harry Belafonte's character playing jazz in a club, singing beautifully but also playing the glockenspiel in the most aggressive manner possible. The scenes of Harry Belafonte in the jazz club are epic, especially as he becomes drunk and angry, furious with his own folly, but also angry with the world around him.

The heist in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is going to be premised also on racism it appears — the guard who is going to be overpowered to allow the small team entry is going to be fooled by Harry Belafonte's appearance, as he won't recognise him or be able to differentiate him from their usual black delivery boy.

Although it's a somewhat minor heist movie, Odds Against Tomorrow is powerful, memorable and bitterly good fun. The opening artistic shots of New York are not typically film noir, but are still suggestive of isolation and existential nor, with their wind sounds and spare modern jazz, coupled with artistic city shots.

The wind makes a curious aside in he elevator ride up to Ed Begley's apartment, featuring an elevator man with a sense of humour, but also a fatal sense of doom, as he signals that the wind in the shafts of the elevator is spooking him out and is suggestive of some impending fate. 

If Odds Against Tomorrow promises to explode it does more than deliver on this. The heist itself is fairly minor, and the plan is basic and easy to execute. However everything goes wrong that could go wrong, and worse than that, the racism that is threatening to break out into anger, breaks out in full flow right in the middle of the heist itself, which is an act of pure genius on the part of the film's makers.

Not only does racial tension spring out into racial war in the middle of this heist but the rest of the film, which should be about a get away becomes a chase and battle between the two protagonists, who fight it out towards a clear, clear message: this sort of behaviour will in the eyes of the film's makers, lead to the destruction of everything. Robert Ryan bites the bullet and plays the everyday American racist, although as this is film noir, there are huge consequences and a message.

There is not quite a conclusion like this in all of film noir, with perhaps there being the exception of Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

Yet, because Slater and Ingram kill each other in their private racial war by inadvertently blowing up the fuel depot they are fighting in, both of their bodies have been burned beyond recognition leaving the police coroner no option but to state there is no way to tell the corpses apart  immediate way of telling the two corpses apart — certainly one of the most hugely ironic endings in all film noir.

Robert Ryan in race-relations noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Harry Belafonte is angry but so is his nemesis and partner, Robert Ryan, who drops the n-bomb half way through the movie. He accuses his estranged wife of palling up to her "big white brothers" on their daughter's behalf:

Drink enough tea with them and stay out of the watermelon patch, and maybe our little colored girl'll grow up to be Miss America, is that it?... Why don't you wise up, Ruth? It's their world and we're just living in it. Don't you ever let me catch you teaching Eadie to suck up to those...

As the film closes, the mental scenery becomes darker. First, Burke, finding himself wounded during a shoot-out with the police, decides to commit suicide, rather than allowing the police to capture him. None of the men in fact survive the story, 

Betty and Veronica: Lorry, Slater's wife, who tries to makes him move beyond his criminal past and find honest employment and worries about his well-being is the Betty; his neighbor Helen, the Femme Fatale who is more excited by his darker side and said criminal past, is the Veronica.

Kim Hamilton in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

The modality of Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) as one-last-job caper style movie is business as usual, although the hardness of the racism and the disastrous relationships of the two leading men are ramped up with each having to have two unsatisfactory love interests — one at home in each case — and one on the streets as it were. Nothing works however for either men and the results are death by racism. 

Slater doesn't survive the story; but then again, neither does Ingram.

Coco, one of Bacco's mooks, engages in a little hostile flirting with Ingram, proving that Odds Against Tomorrow also has time to play the criminal homosexual card, with young actor Richard Bright delivering the queer stares and moves.

Richard Bright in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

For more chop for your buck, Odds Against Tomorrow was written by then blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Body and Soul, Force of Evil), and has super-striking cinematography by Joseph C. Brun who adds a touch of modernity with his one-off experiments with infra-red film.

Music is provided by jazz pianist John Lewis, who provides moody nightclub tunes and atmospheric doomy jazz instrumentals which fit the bill perfectly enough that the sound would become standard for a long time.

Harry Belafonte; Ed Begley, Robert Ryan in
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Noir seeds are sown throughout with constant statements of loathing and failed love affairs, as well as everybody's ability to hold on to their temper and their money.

If Johnny is played by a clean-cut Harry Belafonte, this nice guy surface is soon torn away to show a compulsive gambler who's in debt to dangerous loan shark, something we can assume contributed to the break-up of his marriage. 

He still appears to be on decent terms with wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) when he visits to take his young daughter out for the day, but when she refuses to submit to his advances his anger at her and her integration into the white community erupt. Worse, although he likes to play the ladies man, his heart's no longer in it, and backstage embrace with a fellow jazz singer provokes him to say: "That's good...but it was better when you wanted it."

Earl (Robert Ryan) is the victim of his own pride and his hair-trigger anger stems from his inability from his inability to find work and his resulting reliance on girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters). First off, he seems devoted to her, but his pride is a pain, and this sends him in the direction of lascivious neighbour Helen (Gloria Grahame ), who's one of these women who are turned on by the idea that he is a violent killer. 

Both men experience public humiliation to help steer them towards this ill fated heist up state, Johnny when he gets drunk and makes a fool of himself on stage, and Earl when he talks back to a soldier who is trying to impress a girl in a bar. This confrontation is one of the best in the film and seems to demand that the soldier get his comeuppance, but when it kicks off, neither Earl nor the audience experience any cathartic satisfaction.

Gloria Grahame in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Gloria Grahame makes a somewhat gratuitous appearance as a late femme fatale — gratuitous because she does not appear often, and her highlight is when she briefly reveals her underwear, as thoroughly exciting as one could find in 1959. She plays Slater's neighbour Helen, with whom he has an affair. Her main impact as a femme fatale is that she finds the stories about his criminal past exciting, in contrast to his wife Lorry who tries to make him find an honest job. It is a normally enough noir contrast to make, and is the age-old male dilemma in film noir — honesty or dishonesty. 

The normally thorough moral path of noir usually dictates that the anti-hero will take the immoral path, and wind up punished accordingly. The entire theme of 'one last job' should have been enough to warn everyone off, but nobody listens to the gods in noir. A reluctant Ingram takes the job because the gangster he owes money to is turning up the heat. Unbeknownst to him, but knownst to the viewer, Burke knows the gangster and the increased pressure is a ploy to manipulate him into taking part in the bank job.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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