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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: ****