Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): A Work of Art

UK film writer Philip French in the Observer in 2009 related that Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) “was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième soufflé [1966]”. I can share this enthusiasm…

Odds Against Tomorrow (UA 1959) – 96 min.

Director – Robert Wise

Writing credits:
William P. McGivern – novel
Abraham Polonsky (front John O. Killens) and Nelson Gidding – screenplay

Harry Belafonte – Johnny Ingram
Robert Ryan – Earle Slater
Shelley Winters – Lorry
Ed Begley – Dave Burke
Gloria Grahame – Helen
Will Kuluva – Bacco
Kim Hamilton – Ruth Ingram
Mae Barnes – Annie
Richard Bright – Coco
Carmen De Lavallade – Kittie
Lew Gallo – Moriarty
Lois Thorne – Edie Ingram

Produced by:
Phil Stein – associate producer
Robert Wise – producer
Harry Belafonte – co-producer (uncredited)

Original Music -John Lewis

Cinematography – Joseph C. Brun

Editor – Dede Allan

Film filmed on location in the town of Hudson in the Hudson River Valley, New York City, and at the Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx.

“There is no idea, no theory, no way of  life that cannot be reshaped, illuminated and
made more human by being subject to the imagination and criticism of the artist.”
– Abraham Polonsky

UK film writer Philip French in the Observer in 2009 related that Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) “was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième soufflé [1966]”. I can share this enthusiasm.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a work of art: truly the culmination of film noir and deserving of much greater recognition not only as a consummate film but as the harbinger of the re-invention of noir in the 60s by Sam Fuller in Hollywood and Melville in France. Most commentators see Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil (1958) as the valedictory film noir of the classic cycle, but to my mind that film’s cross-border setting and non-urban locale do not truly reflect the big city alienation that distinguishes the classic noir cycle. In Odds Against Tomorrow, New York City and its industrial fringe are quasi-protagonists that harbor the angst and desperation of life outside the mainstream – sordid dreams of the last big heist that will fix everything. But as always in the noir universe the relentlessly deterministic metropolis in cahoots with capricious fate kick those dreams out of the ring.

A disgraced ex-cop on the cusp of old-age plans a ‘dream’ heist that will see to his retirement, and he needs two desperate men to help do the deed. The ex-cop, Dave Burke, played by Ed Begley, moving from wild optimism to a quiet desperation, does his research well and identifies two guys that are hungry enough to take the bait. Robert Ryan is Earle Slater, a moody violent veteran who after killing a man is just out of stir, and living with a loving woman played by Shelley Winters, who supports them both. But Earle can’t stomach being supported by a woman, he is no longer young, and he is going nowhere. Harry Belafonte plays a young black jazz musician, Johnny Ingram, with a betting addiction, and who is in hock to a local hood and can’t find the dough. Burke particularly needs a black guy as the hijacking and impersonation of a black café delivery waiter is essential to his plan. Earle is unsure about the job, but his frustration and circumstances bring him round. Johnny sees the plan as wobbly, and anyway his creditor, a hood named Bacco, who has a soft spot for him, is taking instalments for the interest. But in a particularly mean act of treachery Burke convinces Bacco to play hard-ball and demand immediate payment, by guaranteeing the debt. Belafonte gets himself in deeper by playing fast and loose with a gun when pressed for payment, and alienates Bacco big time.

The scene where Burke propositions Bacco is nicely crafted by director Robert Wise. Bacco is in central park feeding pigeons on an open expanse of grass against the city skyline as Burke approaches. After some small-talk as Burke also feeds the pigeons, Burke makes a sudden movement towards Bacco which spooks the birds and gets Burke up-close to Bacco so that he can sotto-voce hatch his stratagem.

Both Earle and Johnny are angry men. Earle a racist at every opportunity denigrates Johnny, who is estranged from his middle-class black wife and young daughter. She wants a life for the child and Johnny will only put her aspirations in jeopardy. Although they still love each other, she won’t take him back. Johnny betrays a seething resentment against an excluding white society triggered by a visit to his wife’s apartment when she is hosting a school PTA meeting, which includes white parents:

Ruth Ingram (flaring): I am trying to make a world fit for Edie to live in. It’s a cinch you’re not going to do it with a deck of cards and a racing form.

Johnny Ingram: But you are, huh? You and your big white brothers. Drink enough tea with ’em and stay out of the watermelon patch and maybe our little colored girl will grow up to be Miss America, is that it?

The suppressed rage of these two men and their mutual antagonism have explosive consequences.

The day of the heist dawns and the gang heads up-state to an industrial town on the Hudson river. The robbery goes down but goes horribly wrong. Burke is dead at the scene, and in a chase that culminates in an oil refinery, Earle and Johnny blow themselves to smithereens in a final shoot-out atop a gasoline silo. There is no romanticism and the scene is reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949)only in its technical aspects. When the bodies are recovered at the refinery in the final scene, race is a ‘dead’ issue:

Cop to another cop: Well, these are the two that did it.

Morgue attendant: Which is which?

Cop: Take your pick.

Abe Polonsky’s impressive screenplay takes William P. McGivern’ s basic story and adds deeper characterisations, while removing McGivern’s dramatic and poetically redemptive ending. Polonsky’s denoument is harshly final and without sentiment or pity, but he adds more depth to the Dave Burke and Johnny Ingram characters. In the book Dave Burke is thinly drawn and is not in on the actual heist, and Johnny Ingram is not fully drawn until after the heist. Polonsky had to use a front as he was still blacklisted 10 years after the punks at HUAC destroyed his career. Robert Ryan himself was an activist committed to liberal causes such as SANE and the ACLU.

In June 1999 film writer Louis Proyect attended a screening of Odds Against Tomorrow. After the screening Polonksy, Belafonte, and composer Tom Lewis spoke on a panel hosted by John Schultheiss, a critical contributor to Polonsky’s ‘Odds Against Tomorrow: The Critical Edition’ (Cal State, 1999).  Proyect reported:

In a montage of ‘race understanding’ films from the mid 1950s, Schultheiss [explained] how unique Odds Against Tomorrow was. In prior films such as The Defiant Ones, there is a plea for racial tolerance but the black character is always sacrificed in the process. Chained to white racist escaped convict Tony Curtis, fellow escapee Sidney Poitier constantly goes out of his way to show the audience that he will turn the other cheek, while Curtis keeps slapping it. Belafonte explained that he wanted to depict a black character who would not stand for any humiliation. It was also a way to tell Hollywood that he would not kowtow to their idea of how a black character should behave. [Note by Tony D’Ambra: Schultheiss apparently did not mention Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s noir No Way Out (Fox 1950), starring Sidney Poitier, which pre-dates The Defiant Ones, and could be seen to have an empowered black protagonist.]

Belafonte had put his own fortune and reputation on the line. Waiving his fee as an actor, and fronting a quarter-million dollars, he sought to break new ground cinematically. In Schultheiss’s commentary on the film, Belafonte is quoted, “My own personal desire was to put things on the screen that reflected the deeper resonance of black life, things that had never been approached before, even within the United Artists realm.” His partnership with United Artists was a reflection of the special role of the company in Hollywood, which was to be obliterated by corporate ownership a decade or so later. Formed by Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s, United Artists was cooperatively owned by actors, screenwriters and directors who wanted to make uncompromising films…

Schultheiss posed a provocative question to Polonsky. How did his belief in progressive politics square with his decision to write a film with criminals as central characters, who had no socially redeeming qualities? Was it difficult to make what was essentially an entertainment about hardboiled criminals, when his stated beliefs revolved around transforming American society? Polonsky, never one to mince words, practically spit [sic] out his reply. He said that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system…

Belafonte made two decisions that reflected his own uncompromising beliefs. He hired Abraham Polonsky to write the film, who was still blacklisted. Belafonte’s connections to this world was rooted in his own experience as a blacklistee. What enabled him to break free of McCarthyite repression was his unique folksinging talent, which attracted the support of Ed Sullivan who featured Belafonte regularly on his popular Sunday night television variety show. [Writer Paul] Buhle told me that despite this, Sullivan was a run-of-the-mill red-baiter, who had viciously attacked Polonsky in a newspaper column in the same year Odds Against Tomorrow was being filmed.

The cast is uniformly strong, with a young Belafonte holding his own with veterans Begley and Ryan. Belafonte in a nuanced portrayal convincingly captures the contradictions of a man the prisoner of a gambling habit who loves his family dearly. Begley is pitch perfect as the desperate yet naïve mastermind. Ryan is brilliant as the moody troubled veteran with a rampant anger and racial hatred, who yet manages a tenderness that attracts and holds a decent woman, then cheats on her in vengeful anger when they fight. Gloria Grahame as a young mother and neighbor, who is memorable in a small role, is perversely attracted to this seething violence. The seduction scene is packed with a fierce eroticism.

What makes Odd Against Tomorrow a work of art? Undoubtedly it is the result of a synergy grown from the craft and commitment of a talented film-making team. I have spoken of the screenplay and the cast, and now I need to address the polished achievements of those that put the movie together. Together with DP Joseph C. Brun, Wise re-casts New York as the noir city, with a deep focus, canny lighting, and killer perspectives. As a cinematic city of a haunting cold beauty, a brooding realm where its denizens tread bright boulevards in a bleached-out bizarre dream dreamt by ‘mad men’. The AFI informs us that in an interview Wise said: “I did something in Odds Against Tomorrow I’d been wanting to do in some pictures but hadn’t had the chance. I wanted a certain kind of mood in some sequences, such as the opening when Robert Ryan is walking down West Side Street…I used infra-red film. You have to be very careful with that because it turns green things white, and you can’t get too close on people’s faces. It does distort them but gives that wonderful quality—black skies with white clouds—and it changes the feeling and look of the scenes.” [Robert Wise On His Films (Silman-James, 1995) p. 157]. Those stark monochrome compositions are wonderfully evident in scene after scene. The framing and lighting is stunning. Indeed, the picture has a sort of late-period neo-realism with a French noir patina. The photography shows a city in the throes of a radical re-invention that is adopting the angular mood evident in the new model cars on its streets – all thrust, sharp angles, and fins. The doomed protagonists stand out as anachronisms in this bold new world, and only Johnny puts on a brave front with a flashy white sports-car and dark glasses.

Composer John Lewis’s edgy modern jazz score, played by an ensemble that included Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass, Connie Kay on drums, Bill Evans on piano, and Jim Hall on guitar, is demanding and intrusive in a way that gives it an unprecedented role in proceedings. It takes on the role of a Greek chorus that exceeds its mandate by persistently and loudly challenging the protagonists’ actions. Though the soundtrack has quiet piano interludes and significant long silent scenes where nothing much happens – particularly an extended sequence in which each gang-member waits out the afternoon before the heist alone in a desolate industrial landscape on the banks of the Hudson river, its calm beauty sacrificed to the garbage strawn in the water along its shores, and to an overcast desolation. In one scene, Johnny sitting on a dock spies a disturbing object in the water – it turns out to be a ‘white’ doll entangled in kelp and garbage. A commentary by Ted Farlow for a 2008 MoMA screening of the movie nicely conveys the artistry at work: “Bill Evans [on piano], harmonizes beautifully with Dede Allen’s taut editing—with its stretches of haunting silence and its use of shock cuts in place of traditional fades and dissolves—and with Joseph Brun’s stark black-and-white cinematography”.

In the December 31, 1958 issue of Variety, a staff writer deftly encapsulates the movie’s strengths: “Director Robert Wise has drawn fine performances from his players. It is the most sustained acting Belafonte has done. Ryan makes the flesh crawl as the fanatical bigot. Begley turns in a superb study of a foolish, befuddled man who dies, as he has lived, without knowing quite what he has been involved in. Shelley Winters etches a memorable portrait, and Gloria Grahame is poignant in a brief appearance. Joseph Brun’s black and white photography catches the grim spirit of the story and accents it with some glinting mood shots. John Lewis’ music backs it with a neurotic, edgy, progressive jazz score.”

I am edging towards seeing Odds Against Tomorrow as greater than Wise’s other noir masterpiece The Set-Up (1949).

A must-see, Odds Against Tomorrow will screen at the NY Film Forum Wednesday August 17 at 1:00pm, 4:45pm, and 8:30pm. It is available on DVD.


Cities Have Lost Their Poetry

Thirty years ago in my late 20s on many lonely cold winter nights I walked the desolate streets of the city fringe… down narrow sparsely-lit alleys

Noir City: Sydney Harbour 1950s - Original photo by Max Dupane

Thirty years ago in my late 20s on many lonely cold winter nights I walked the desolate streets of the city fringe. Down narrow sparsely-lit alleys with dark dirty store-fronts, ominous warehouses, and desperate characters.  A salty dampness and the silhouettes of sea-faring hulks on Sydney harbor drawing me into an enveloping angst.  There was mystery, an aching feeling of some unfathomable loss, of poetry.

Today those streets are bright, lined with trendy restaurants, exclusive warehouse conversions, soul-less showrooms for funky furniture, and expensive cars.  No mystery, no angst, and no poetry.