Odd Man Out (1947)

Odd Man Out (1947) by Carol Reed and starring James Mason is a classic British film noir set largely on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, following one man's episodic flight in the night, as he evades the law, while partially aided in his delirious and wounded state, by a variety of comrades, sympathetic locals and other colourful characters.

The noir chops of this outstanding thriller are evident first in the central character of Johnny McQueen, who is a sympathetic villain — almost a double villain if this is a permissible description.

As a handsome and wounded hero pulling off a passable Irish accent, James Mason is fully sympathetic despite his being both an armed robber and a terrorist — the latter at least in the eyes of the state.

The noir feel is further evident in the photography which is stunning in its use of shadows and light on the streets, corners and alleyways. These in fact do presage the similar, more famous and more elaborate work done by Carol Reed in the film The Third Man (1949), which was filmed two years later than this. 

The Northern Irish setting is a unique chance for drama and complexity, and the production does well to express the dangers and difficulties of a population which are in part under occupation. This means that the entire environment is a challenge. Johnny is a wanted man before the film and its robbery even begin, famous as a folk hero in one sense, but a danger to all who know him in another sense, as he is wanted by the police.

Kathleen Ryan in Odd Man Out (1947)

James Mason in Odd Man Out (1947)

The set-up like the run of the picture is quite simple. Irish nationalist organisation member Johnny McQueen has been hiding for six months, since his escape from prison, in a house occupied by Kathleen Sullivan (who has fallen in love with Johnny) and her grandmother. He is ordered to rob a mill but his seclusion makes his men question his fitness. His lieutenant Dennis offers to take his place, but Johnny turns him down.

Doubting criminal Johnny McQueen played by James Mason
Odd Man Out (1947)

Johnny, Nolan, and Murphy carry out the robbery, While fleeing, Johnny falls behind the others and is tackled by an armed guard, whom he kills. Johnny is shot in the shoulder. Johnny is pulled into the car, but falls out. Pat, the getaway driver, refuses to return to retrieve him. Weak and disorientated, Johnny hides in a nearby air raid shelter — and so begins his night odyssey.

Documentary style film noir in Odd Man Out (1947)

One of the unseen glories of Odd Man Out (1947) which gives it so much of its depth is the mixing of documentary style film noir with a range of fantastical light and sound stage creations. The documentary feel, immediately obvious from the opening aerial photography, runs through the city ruins and its many nooks and corners, to combine with fantastically created corners, where James Mason has visions and wordless existential and spiritual experiences. 

The mixture of these sound stage creations with the reality of Belfast, achieved so effortlessly, gives this movie a large part of its power. 

Prison dreams in the ruins in Odd Man Out (1947)

What is unusual about the largely wordless character of Johnny and the adventure that Johnny makes through the night, is how passive he is. This is due to his delirious state and his injury, which makes of the night a kind of descent through purgatory to his quite obvious end. Obvious — because it seems unlikely that Odd Man Out (1947) can end in any other way.

Incredible night time urban noir dramatics from Carol Reed in
Odd Man Out (1947)

This brand of multi-layered doom is perfect for film noir. Film noir loves a character who is trapped by multiple fates, and Johnny could not be better placed in the stakes of doom. He is either going back to prison for his nationalist activities, or he is going to be captured and killed for murder and armed robbery — or indeed he may die of his wounds.

Uniquely however, Johnny's journey is passive. At his first stop after the robbery — an air raid shelter — Johnny deliriously relives some moments from his previous incarceration when it was clear that he was tortured by the British occupiers. And this is not Johnny's only moment of delirium, as there are quite a few.

As we progress through this classic film noir tale of the city and its eccentric characters, we join with Johnny as a folk hero to his people, and as a resistance fighter and while still a terrorist, at the same time viewed as a resistance fighter and hero — his status as Belfast's most wanted also make of him an attractive and sympathetic character.

Kathleen Ryan in Odd Man Out (1947)

Once Johnny adds to this by becoming an armed robber, this sympathy remains with him. Johnny does make a journey, but it might be more accurate to say that the city moves around him, rather than he through the city. This is because once he is wounded, Johnny pretty much stays in this states, dying slowly and barely even able to move at times, as he tries to get from place to place, or more usually is brought from place to place by the characters of the city.

William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who, in Odd Man Out (1947)

FJ McCormick in Odd Man Out (1947)

On his travels, Johnny meets an opportunistic bird-fancier played by F. J. McCormick, a drunken artist played by Robert Newton, a barman (William Hartnell) and a failed surgeon (Elwyn Brook-Jones). Denis O'Dea is the inspector on Johnny's trail, and Kathleen Ryan, in her first feature film, plays the woman who loves Johnny.

Robert Newton in Odd Man Out (1947)

Curiously, the novel on which Odd Man Out was based was keenly pro-Loyalist in tone, while the film transforms Johnny from a mean terrorist into a tragically flawed man. The location remains unnamed even though it is clearly the port of Belfast, as does the secret group McQueen represents which is spoken of only as “the organisation”. 

Odd Man Out is not in fact about the political situation in Northern Ireland, but is more of a study in morality, about the ways in which McQueen’s predicament influences everyone who encounters him. In this fashion then, there are no outright villains, even though there is selfishness, greed, and other moral failings, wrapped up in drunkenness. In this manner Odd Man Out reflects Jean Renoir’s dictum that “everyone has his reasons” — and judgment isn't really passed on anyone.

This is not to argue that local details are dispensed with so that a social and political dimension is missing from Odd Man Out. However, by employing the film noir toolbox, notably in the form of expressionism, and then introducing religious allegory, the film's events lead to metaphysical commentary rather than the making of any social statement.

Johnny's delirious state means that Odd Man Out is more pure form of cinema than it may at first appear, and this embodiment of meaning in the visuals and soundscapes, rather than in the drama is pure and perfect noir. The daytime scenes in the streets have a documentary realism about them, a tone set from the off with the aerial photography of the city.

Up until night fall this is the entire tone in fact, and the city streets are relentlessly filmed. After nightfall, the cinema becomes expressionistically subjective, as the urban landscapes become confused in Johnny's mind with the delirium he feels. Even before he is wounded, Johnny seems to be losing touch with life, and questioning himself and his political beliefs. 

Increasingly, Johnny is a symbol and not a person at all, as everyone seems to be looking for a way to turn the situation to their advantage. Even the priest in Odd Man Out is determined to capture Johnny, only so that he can hear confession.

Delirium of the dying and the faces in the beer in
Odd Man Out (1947)

Of Johnny's encounters, the most memorable and larger-than-life is Robert Newton as an artist. By the time Johnny is holed up in the artist's studio, after experiencing his latest delirium in a puddle of beer, in which he sees the faces of the characters of his fate dancing before him, the film has left realism behind and is set to stomp allegorically to its conclusion . Robert Newton's character is a strange choice, but the notion that the artist as a failure specifically in his vain attempt to capture the moment of dying is powerful.

All characters her are out for something, and as a near-dead token, Johnny has much to offer. Robert Newton as artist Lukey, wants to look into Johnny's dying eyes and capture his soul on canvas. Another pal who turns up is Tober (Brook-Jones), a failed doctor who wants to mend Johnny so that he can prove his medical skills. He simply does not care that he would only be healing Johnny so that the fugitive could be executed. Like the others, this pair have no further human interest in Johnny who stumbles out of this scene, quoting from I Corinthians 8 — which is a verse that says man is nothing without charity and that only help given without expecting something from it, is truly a Christian charity.

Robert Newton casts artistic light on the fatal political and existential hopes in
Odd Man Out (1947) by Carol Reed

This abandonment of the naturalistic elevates the thriller that is Odd Man Out into something for all time. The messy politics of the time and place are somewhat neutralised, which does not add any realism, but suggests enough so that no offence can be taken or made, and so that any humanity and characterisation is not overlaid or spoiled with either ideology, or distractions in the story telling.

The city is a dark and sometimes wild place of shadows filled with acerbic characters, although even the compassionate are afraid to get involved given the stakes. Johnny's advice to the nurses who take him in is: "Close the door when I'm gone, and forget me."

James Mason and elevation to insanity and death in
Odd Man Out (1947)

Despite the growing religious overtones and the split reactions he receives in the community of which he is the focal point, Johnny McQueen is not a Christ figure, but more of a classic film noir persona —  fatally flawed, right from the start, at which point he seals his own fate by insisting that he takes part in the operation despite not being fit.

James Mason is very much the calm centre of an almost Dickensian whirlpool of characters. Above all it is the backdrop of the political troubles which offer the deepest well. We find drinkers spouting the cause in William Hartnell's bar, British policemen acting with restraint and rationality, ordinary citizens not wanting to get involved in the violence and others looking to turn Johnny in for the reward money, as well as decent republican families all trying to figure a way out of the mess the country is in.

As the film concludes, the imagery and action is almost surreal as we see a man waiting for his final moments. Unlike much of the British cinema's wartime work, Odd Man Out (1947) is not a work rich in social realism. Formally, Odd Man Out (1947) seems to lean more towards both German Expressionism and French poetic realism — and in fact, its ending is practically a copy of Julien Duvivier's Pepé le Moko (1936) — while it is also of course styled with the flavour of American post-war film noir.

Devilish delirium in Odd Man Out (1947)

Doom is best expressed in classic film noir in many creative ways, and here it is felt in the gradually worsening weather — which goes from cold to rain and from rain to snow — to a complete blizzard which frames the dreamlike concluding scenes.

The compositions are total composites of all good things noir. Many are imbalanced and claustrophobic, with characters sometimes cramped into enclosed interiors or rendered small by their looming dark surrounds.

The use of a tilted camera — almost a Carol Reed trademark by the end —  and a variety of acute angles, and wide-angles, add depth to that dreamlike noir fantasy, especially in the chase sequences down long alley-ways, ruins or scaffolding.

Find the Odd Man Out (1947) on Wikipedia


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