In 1949 British director Carol Reed and Australian born cinematographer Robert Krasker made The Third Man. One of the great films of the 1940s and a signal film noir. Two years earlier the pair worked together on Odd Man Out. While Odd Man Out is less widely known, the film is of sufficient stature to rank as an essential film noir.
In Odd Man Out Reed and Krasker reveal the nocturnal soul of the regional city of Belfast, a port and industrial town in Northern Ireland, as they did to greater acclaim the more urbane environs of post-war Vienna in The Third Man. A dark fatalism imbues both films, which are concerned with a police hunt for a criminal. Each protagonist is drawn with a certain ambivalence, and both men are loved by a woman who sees past their crimes. These scenarios have an engaging cavalcade of characters as in a true human comedy, yet it is the antagonism of love and friendship on the one hand, and the imperatives of conscience on the other, that matter. In The Third Man, the dilemma is whether loyalty out of passion is stronger and more genuine than the loyalty of friendship, where the object of affection is without scruples and commits despicable acts. Harry Lime is an engaging rogue but his crimes are immoral and motivated by greed. Odd Man Out however presents us with a protagonist whose morality is more problematic.
In the opening scenes of Odd Man Out the leader of an IRA cell played by James Mason is shot and wounded during a heist to raise cash, and in the struggle to escape, he shoots and kills a cashier. The rest of the story follows his desperate attempts to reach a safe house where the young woman who loves him is waiting. He engages in not only this physical struggle but also with an agonising remorse at having taken a life. Here the film meanders a bit while a clutch of humanity is caught up in the pursuit. Betrayal, avarice, and spirituality are all given a place, but it is altogether too much like preaching, and some odd humour jars even though it is a barbed portrayal of greed and artistic pretensions. The poetry here is in the dark yet glistening visuals as we follow Mason on his path through the city at night and in the rain.
The inevitable dénouement has a tragic pathos that echoes not so much film noir but more the fatalism of French poetic realism. If we are charitable the ending is a homage to Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), and if we are not so inclined it harkens unmistakably to the motifs and mise-en-scène of that film.
Mason beautifully inhabits his role in a strong physical sense where his words are few and often soliloquies. As the girl who loves him, Kathleen Ryan is a commanding presence – her quiet stoicism masks a deep passion and devotion. A woman straight from a novel by Simone de Beauvoir. Her actions sharply mark her as an existential hero, so much so that the closing scenes achieve a different resonance than in Pépé le Moko.
One of the great films noir and, to quote Peter Bradshaw from the UK Guardian, “an eccentric masterpiece”.
10 thoughts on “Odd Man Out (1947): Dark Yet Glistening”
Funny how I just watched this film too. It’s so great and I love the supporting characters in the Odyssey of Mason’s quest to reach safety. Robert Newton is such a great character actor. Love him.
Reed’s Euro-trilogy (Belfast, London, Vienna): Odd Man Out, The Third Man, The Fallen Idol. Newton’s performance as the eccentric (mad?) artist almost overshadows Mason and Ryan. Among the greatest noirs, but also one of the best films from the 1940s.
Great writeup for this film.
“Odd Man Out however presents us with a protagonist whose morality is more problematic.”
Certainly a distinct point of contrast with the other Reed masterpiece, the monumental THE THIRD MAN, and your featured phrase “the poetry is in the visuals” is magnificent. This is as beautifully-written a review that this supreme cinematic classic has ever received from anyone, and I applaud your masterful word economy, which makes every word and every sentence count. Mason does give one of the finest performances ever recorded on film, and the great Robert Krasker (yep, Australian by birth!) is one of the most celebrated DPs of all-time. There is an undercurrent of spirituality in the film, and there is some heavy-duty moralizing, but the subject matter does warrant it to a degree, and Reed is far more interested in visuals and atmosphere, and the textures are hallucinatory. Excellent point about the denouement paralleling French poetic realism. There are some echoes of John Ford’s THE INFORMER here too in theme and style, though Reed’s film is more poetic as you so well assert in this superlative review!
Jon, yes quite a coincidence!
Jon and Leo, Newton was over the top and I must admit I am ambivalent about his showy performance. Peter Bradshaw in his review said: “Robert Newton’s cameo as a crazy artist is strained, and among the genteel stage-Irish accents, only the street urchins actually sound as if they’re from Belfast”. Though I never queried the accents myself…
Thanks Sam! Agree with you on The Informer, and I will need to re-acquaint myself with that particular Ford.
Great review. I loved James Mason in ‘North by Northwest’ but he has never been better than he is in this classic film. The mood and atmosphere seem even more important than the themes, as this is cinema.
Thanks Frank. Mason here reminds me of his role in Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment where he plays another ambivalent character. He has a certain flair for these conflicted protagonists.
You neglected to mention the original score by William Alwyn. That score, as it builds to the inevitable dénouement adds to that “tragic pathos that echoes not so much film noir but more the fatalism of French poetic realism”.
Its one of my favorites.
Nice article Tony. I’m working my way through the lists of noirs. This one was very good in the first half – very tense and atmospheric. However, I thought the film was a bit overlong & wandered a bit in the second half. I thought the scenes with the crazy bird guy and the artist were overlong and should have been trimmed to keep the film lean and taut. The bird guy in particular, just crippled the film for me. Still, the film had some nice weird visuals towards the end, and a climax that does pack a considerable fatalistic wallop. So, overall, a good film with a lot going for it, that falls short of greatness in my opinion, for the reasons noted above. I saw Reed’s Third Man 11 years ago during my first infatuation with Noir, and wasn’t all that impressed, but I need to re-watch that one.
Thanks Lee. Yes, the second half of Odd Man Out is marred by the meandering scenes that don’t feature the protagonist and the absurd artist grates. For me The Third Man is not only a great noir but one of the greatest films ever. Have another look.