Odd Man Out (1947)

Director: Carol Reed

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.

Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.

Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.

Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.

Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.

At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.

The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.

The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.

You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.

James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.

But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.

Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    6th/07/2011 to 10:39 pm

    This is one the most broadly-played Reed films, if not the most, it veers into Fordian Irish territory, (oops, leave off about the Territorials, sorry lads) and that makes it a curiosity more than it should. Reed always was conscious of even minor Irish possibilities in his films, (Calloway and Callahan in “The Third Man)” he knew the Isle dwellers on both sides of the Irish Sea would read deeper into all of that than any Yank that was the real money target. Mason was heartbreaking, tho, I rooted for him all the way as a kid. The ending reminds me of Walsh’s “Colorado Territory”, tho Kathleen is less feral than Mayo’s Colorado, but the ending was the same – they were punished for love, not what I wanted back then. The police were smart and relentless, and certainly not broadly-played at all, something that Reed may have been meaning to use a counterpoint to the almost fantastical Auld Eire, drinks and all, and the complimentary IRA, too, he’d conjured up.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/07/2011 to 7:05 am

    Van – I thought exactly the same about the Ford link. The detour to Shell and Co. made me impatient with the film the first time I watched it. The second time, however, while still distracted by it, I saw the deeper implications of the subplot and had a better appreciation for what Reed was doing. Besides, the script is so beautiful in this section, and it is so well played, that it’s hard not to go with it.

    Yes, Mason was heartbreaking, so accepting of his treatment, so lost in the world.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    7th/07/2011 to 7:18 pm

    “Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.”

    Oh I quite agree Marilyn. We think of John Ford films like THE INFORMER and THE QUIET MAN, and the long run of IRA films that brought us the likes of Ken Loach’s THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY and Jim Sheridan’s IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER among others. ODD MAN OUT is one of the most brilliant British films of all-time, and one of Reed’s two supreme masterpieces with THE THIRD MAN. The chase through the city streets certainly brings to mind the latter film as well as Lang’s M. Thematically, the film can rightfully be compared to Marcel Carne’s QUAI DES BRUMMES with Jean Gabin. James Mason is superlative in a role without much dialogue, in playing the traditional Reed anti-hero, who makes selfish choices for political gain. The film features towering atmospheric and bleakly lit cinematography by the great Robert Krasker, and a piercing leitmotif score by William Alwyn.

    As always you have treated your readers to a fabulous analytical essay.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/07/2011 to 7:44 am

    Once again, Sam, you add marvelously to the information about this fine film. Odd Man Out is a strangely layered film that can be delved into almost endlessly, and writing about it took some time, but time well spent.

  • Maren spoke:
    8th/07/2011 to 10:29 am

    The Third Man and M also came to my mind – and Zinnemann´s The Seventh Cross. But that´s a film about Nazi Germany and humanity and solidarity in the face of terror. Here the protagonist is a murderer, ambiguity, fear and selfishness predominate courage and all sides seem rather exchangable.

    The police and the organisation claim Johnny´s life with almost the same words as the painter´s concern for the immortal soul strangely reflects Father Tom´s. Shell holds a guardian angel´s hands while Arcadia is a night club next to a graveyard. We can´t even be sure if Kathleen is driven by love and compassion or self-interest. It´s a man´s descent to the underworld ,both tragical and darkly comical. When the ship finally leaves its left for us to decide if they are on board.

    I wasn´t aware of most of the Irish and Beckett aspects of this strangely layered film wich you pointed out.Thank you for having changed that. For me most noir films usually take place in some far away distant noir country. This one came much closer.

    I simply adore R.Krasker´s cinematography in both films, this one and The Third Man. Carne and the 2 Ford films I still have to explore.

    Odd Man Out is a good example why this language is a necessity: A german DVD/VHS does not exist.

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