Odd Man Out (1947)

When it’s on: Friday, 1 June (11.35 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

At times, Odd Man Out feels like a warm-up for The Third Man. This seems certainly the case in Carol Reed’s depiction of the city, an unnamed Northern Ireland commune that may or may not be Belfast. Doesn’t matter. Odd Man Out’s location is as much a character as any of the human players, or indeed Vienna in The Third Man. Not as bombed about as the Austrian capital, it’s every bit as claustrophobic, closed, alleyed, ill-lit, and danger lurks around every corner. There are frequent shots of denizens shutting their doors, as if they’re keeping the perils of the night at bay. Who knows what might be lurking out there?

We do. This evening is occupied by the expiring Johnny McQueen (James Mason). Slowly bleeding to death, he lurches from one situation to the next, the authorities never far away and the city filled with people who either want to help him, exploit him, or can’t get rid of him quickly enough. The imagery comes thick and fast, never more than from the delirious mind of Johnny himself. Staring into the froth of a spilt glass of Guinness, he sees an accusing face in every bubble. In the studio of a demented artist, he’s confronted with grotesque portraits, all staring at him whilst a ghostly priest sermonises silently.

Johnny’s an IRA-like Republican chief who escaped from a jail sentence, only to swap internment at her Majesty’s Pleasure for incarceration in a safe house. Ordered to rob a mill in order to obtain party funds, Johnny is the ill-advised leader of the gang, ill-advised because he’s developed agoraphobia and, sure enough, things go straightforward enough until they’re making their getaway. Shot partly due to his own slowness, he winds up alone in the city, blood seeping from his shoulder, the entire police force after him and with the safe house a remote destination.

The film’s about him, but it’s also about all the other people whose lives are touched by Johnny’s flight. There’s his gang members, slowly picked off by the police as they search for their missing leader. Kathleen Sullivan plays the girl from the safe house, in love with Johnny and looking for him as she’s tailed by a police officer. The officer (Dennis O’Dea) is sympathetic to Kathleen’s story and questions Father Tom (WG Fay), the local priest who appears to know everyone. Father Tom wants to persuade Johnny to give himself up, and believes he might be able to get to him via a poor man (FJ McCormick) who claims to know where he’s hiding. The poor man, Shell, wants money for turning Johnny in, but also has to deal with the attentions of an eccentric artist (Robert Newton). The artist wants nothing more than to paint Johnny, in order to capture on canvas the soul of a dying man, yet has to share time with a failed medical student (Elwyn Brook-Jones). And so it goes on, an endless map of distinct characters with hopes and dreams of their own, all linked via their interaction with Mason’s pained fugitive. Despite the lack of screen time he gets, Brook-Jones’s ‘nearly doctor’ grabs our sympathies for his obvious medical talents, his posh dialect hinting at a better alternative life and leaving us to wonder how he ended up sharing with a pair of losers.

Robert Krasker would eventually an Academy Award for The Third Man, yet the distinct cinematography that made such good use of light and shadows is in evidence here. Under Krasker’s glare, every alleyway offers haven in its shadows, each open space appears threatening. Mason’s brilliant also. Already a British star thanks to a string of wartime hits, Odd Man Out brought his distinctive blend of nobility and villainy to a wider audience and led to a string of roles that both contained real depth and allowed him to fill them with personality. My abiding memory of James Mason is of his face, fixed in a rictus of pain, which throughout Odd Man Out is very nearly his standard pose.

Odd Man Out: ****

7 Replies to “Odd Man Out (1947)”

  1. Great choice Mike as it is such a brilliant movie – frustrating in its unwillingness to actually name either Belfast as the city or the IRA as anything other than the ‘organisation’ but it is a beautiful, poetic film. Together with FALLEN IDOL and THE THIRD MAN these three really are the apex of reed’s career – a new Blu-ray is out soon of this film which i am greatly looking forward to as this is a film that looks marvelous.

    1. Thanks Sergio. Personally I like the way the city is essentially anonymous – the message being that this could happen anywhere. I imagine the decision to not name the ‘IRA’ comes down to fears over being sympathetic to an organisation, giving it a human face, etc. You’re definitely right – those three films are just brilliant, noirish and full of detail. The similarities between them are there if you want to find them, but they don’t spoil the overall effect.

  2. Mike, this movie is one of my all time favourites, always in my top three or four.

    I’ve become convinced over the years that it’s a superior work to the more famous and lauded The Third Man. Apart from the theme and setting feeling special for me, I find the story has a more personal or intimate quality than its better known successor. Added to that is the wonderful characterization; there are great cameos throughout, but Johnny and Kathleen remain at the heart of it all. Mason’s performance is tragically beautiful, but Kathleen Ryan also managed to tap into something deeply moving. It’s her selfless love for Johnny that constitutes the heart of the movie, both in terms of plotting and on a higher emotional level.

    As for the setting, anyone familiar with Belfast will immediately recognise the city, especially the Albert clock overlooking the docks in the memorable finale, and also the timeless Crown Bar.

    Great choice Mike.

    1. Thanks Colin – I read your review over at the High Country and gleaned you’ve at least spent time in Belfast and possibly even done the Johnny McQueen Walk/Stagger. This one really stuck with me because of Reed’s tangential asides into other characters, really getting under the skin of the city to explore its various lives. I thought it was fascinating, an aspect I tried to tease out in my piece and one that never got dull (wish I’d mentioned William Hartnell and the Crown Bar). It distracted from the main story, but always in a way that was welcome because the supporting cast was so multi-faceted and so much back story was suggested, an incredible feat really for a film than ran for less than two hours.

      As for this versus The Third Man, the latter has a special place in my heart, as Odd Man Out does for you. It may be something as daft as watching it at the right time, whilst still a teenager, I think a sixth former, and just soaking up all the detail. It’s a film I return to again and again, and read everything I can about it. Perhaps it’s simply this that makes me regard it in the highest possible terms, a quality drama that’s been placed on a pedestal over the years. For me, it just has everything and I ought to avoid talking about it if it is ever scheduled for fear of producing little more than a fan gush that could never do it justice.

      Still, Odd Man Out really is great and it’s at times like these – when I’ve had to churn out a write-up and later had more time to think about it – that I sort of regret the format of this site. I think it’s one to tackle again, as Sergio said probably on Blu.

      1. Mike, I grew up in Northern Ireland and spent my student years in and around Belfast, so I know the city well. For anyone that knows the place, the Crown really jumps out at you since it’s changed so little. They even have their own website and the gallery shows how the decor remains as it was – http://www.crownbar.com/gallery_details_2.html

        I guess trying to decide whether two great, great movies like this and The Third Man are better than each other is a pretty pointless exercise – I actually love them both.

      2. Wow, the Crown looks fantastic – what a wonderful nostalgic drink that would make for! It actually looks like the sort of hangout for frustrated artists. We’ve got relatives in Norn Iron so it sounds like a good side-excuse to demand a visit.

        I get the point about comparisons being a pointless exercise, but there are a number of similarities, not least the virtuous city shots and the frequent shots of the people. It all looks so great in black and white also, for composing those beautiful frames making full use of light and shadow. I’m reading Searching for John Ford currently and note that Ford much preferred it also.


  3. Yeah, the Crown’s decor is like stepping back into another era.

    It’s impossible to avoid drawing parallels when it comes to Odd Man Out and The Third Man for the reasons you’ve mentioned – there are even points of similarity with the later but lesser The Man Between. As for working out the better one, there’s not a whole lot in it really.

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