Odd Man Out
ODD MAN OUT
Director: Carol Reed
Production: Two Cities Films; black and white; running time: 116 minutes; length: 10,488 feet. Released 23 April 1947.
Producer: Carol Reed; screenplay: F. L. Green and R. C. Sherriff, from the novel by Green; photography: Robert Krasker; editor: Fergus McDonnell; art director: Ralph Brinton; music: William Alwyn.
Cast : James Mason (Johnny); Robert Newton (Lukey); Robert Beatty (Dennis); F. J. McCormick (Shell); Fay Compton (Rosie); Beryl Measor (Maudie); Cyril Cusack (Pat); Dan O'Herlihy (Nolan); Roy Irving (Murphy); Maureen Delany (Theresa); Kitty Kirwan (Granny); Min Milligan (House-keeper); Joseph Tomelty (Cabby); W. G. Fay (Father Tom); Arthur Hambling (Alfie); Kathleen Ryan (Kathleen); Denis O'Dea (Head Constable); William Hartnell (Fencie); Elwyn Brook-Jones (Tober).
Awards: BFA Award for Best Film, 1947.
Green, F. L. and R. C. Sherriff, Odd Man Out, in Three BritishScreenplays, edited by Roger Manvell, London, 1950.
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Odd Man Out was Carol Reed's first postwar feature and the first of a quartet of films, including The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, and Outcast of the Islands, which were to mark the highpoint of a lengthy film-making career. Based on F. L. Green's novel of the same name, the film was partly shot in Belfast with a predominantly Irish cast, including many Abbey Theatre regulars. Robert Krasker, the cameraman on Brief Encounter, was responsible for the film's striking photography, and William Alwyn contributed a memorable musical score, incorporating individual leitmotifs for three of the central characters. On its release, the film was met by almost unanimous praise ("the best film that has ever been made in Britain" according to the Daily Express) and received the British Film Academy's award for the Best British Motion Picture of 1947.
Unlike much of the British cinema's wartime output, the film has little truck with social realism. Formally, the film is heavily indebted to both German Expressionism and French poetic realism—indeed, its ending is practically a copy of Julien Duvivier's Pepé le Moko (1936)—and has much in common with its similarly stylised postwar US counterpart, the film noir. This is evident in the film's approach to both plot and visual presentation. Like classical tragedy, the film's story is concerned with the irreversible consequences of an initial error. Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is shot following an illadvised, and armed, mill robbery and is left to wander the city at night. Despite the efforts of others to save him, his fate is already sealed and, in a moving climax, Johnny meets his death in the arms of the woman he loves, while his last remaining hope of escape, the ship, is seen to sail off without him.
This aura of doom is reinforced by the film's iconography (the recurring appearance of the Albert Clock, the deteriorating weather) as well as its distinctive visual style. As in film noir, both lighting and composition are used to striking effect. Lighting is predominantly low-key, creating strong chiaroscuro contrasts and vivid patterns of light and shadow. Compositions tend to be imbalanced and claustrophobic, with characters either cramped into enclosed interiors (as at Granny's) or rendered small by their surrounding environment (as in many of the night scenes). The use of a tilted camera (almost a Reed trademark), acute angles, and wide-angle lenses adds to these effects, especially in the chase sequences involving Dennis (Robert Beatty) as he races down long and imprisoning alley-ways or clambers his way through a maze of scaffolding. While such scenes as these, with their imaginative combination of real locations and expressive visual design, have retained an air of freshness, the film's resort to full-blooded expressionism in its subjective sequences has worn less well. Although much admired at the time, the attempts to visualize Johnny's hallucinations by superimposing faces onto beer bubbles or by putting paintings into flight now seem simply belaboured (and, no doubt, represent the type of device which led Andrew Sarris to include Reed, somewhat unkindly, in his category of "less than meets the eye").
Debate over the merit of Reed's technique, however, has also tended to discourage too close an inspection of the meanings which the film projects (although the documentarist Edgar Anstey did attack the film at the time of its release for apparently importing French existentialism). For while the film's opening title disclaims any specific connection to the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the film itself studiously avoids referring to either Belfast or the IRA by name, it is also quite clear from the film that it is dealing with a recognisable setting and situation. Indeed, critics have, at various times, praised the film for both its distinctive Irish flavour and the enduring relevance of one of its apparent messages (the futility of violence). What the film does, in this respect, is not so much dispense with local details as deprive them of their social and political dimension. For, by employing the conventions of expressionism, and introducing an element of religious allegory, the film's interpretation of events is inevitably metaphysical rather than social. It is not history and politics which can explain the characters' motivations and actions, only an inexorable fate or destiny. In doing so, it also reinforces a view of the Northern Ireland situation as fundamentally irrational. As Tom Nairn has noted (in The Break-up of Britain), it has become quite common to account for the "troubles" in terms of what he labels "the myth of atavism." It is only "a special historical curse, a luckless and predetermined fate," he observes, "which can account for the war." And it is this viewpoint which is effectively reinforced by Odd Man Out. For Johnny too is "cursed," by virtue of his adoption of violence, and becomes, in his turn, the victim of an apparently "luckless and predetermined fate."