Carol Reed’s 1947 masterpiece, Odd Man Out, could probably be qualified as an EPIC film noir. The term epic and film noir don’t often sync together, but I think an argument could be made that this film reaches a kind of rarefied air. Normally film noirs contain an economy of storyline and often films are in the 90 minute range. This one clocks in closer to 2 hours, and has a winding storyline that slowly takes in multiple points of view and multiple characters along it’s way. If anyone ever had the inclination to presuppose that Reed didn’t have as much influence on the classic noir The Third Man (in reference to Welles’ supposed take-over of that film), one need look no further than Odd Man Out to determine that theory is bunk. The dark lighting and on-location shooting, the conflicted moral ambiguity, the fateful sense of doom, the loyalty of friends and lovers…..all of these things are held in common with The Third Man and indicate that Reed was clearly at the top of his filmmaking abilities in this era.
James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, a recently escaped Irish Nationalist leader based in Northern Ireland. He’s got a small group of loyal members at his beck and call….and also a devoted woman who loves him named Kathleen, played with touching emotion by Kathleen Ryan. He plans a bank heist to help pay for funds for his cause, but the heist goes awry, and Johnny ends up killing a man outside the bank. In the fight, he is shot in the shoulder and finds his way to an air-raid shelter in a poor part of town. He hides out there while his friends try to find him and get him to safety. The film then goes on to follow Johnny on an odyssey or quest of sorts, as he encounters everyone from kindly nurse ladies, to a horse-cab driver, to a bum, to a bar tender, to a drunken artist, and everyone has a different approach to his predicament. Some of them want to help him but are afraid of what it might look like to help someone like him, while others see him as a way to make money, as there is a reward out on him.
Overall, the film’s refined and romantically fatalistic tone is less in line with American film noirs like The Killers or The Big Heat, which tend to rely on more sexual undercurrents and violence. As such, it stands apart, along with The Third Man at least among film noirs that I’ve seen. There’s nothing hard-boiled about this film. Mason was always a refined kind of actor and his presence at the center of this film gives it a far different feel, with his whispy gentility and professorial delivery making the film far more polished than most film noirs would appear. Mason, although the central character in the film, doesn’t really have a significant amount of screen time, as the time is split among myriads of actors as his journey through the night to find safety continues. Reed’s way of introducing new characters throughout the film makes the film continually feel alive and vital.
Although the political angle of the film seems to draw a sympathy for the Irish Nationalist cause, it is not to a degree that is agenda driven. I didn’t feel like I was being manipulated into feeling a certain way. This story becomes about this man on this night and how he is treated by those he encounters. There’s also a fantastic surrealistic angle going on. Mason’s hallucinations in the bunker, at the bar table staring into the bubbles on the table in the spilled beer, and the one while he sits in the chair being painted by the drunken artist all add a sense of the absurd and allow for some interesting visual flourishes. The film score by William Alwyn is spectacular, as is the cinematography by Robert Krasker (who also would go on to photograph The Third Man). My only complaint is that this film is a bit difficult to track down and doesn’t exist in a proper print in the U.S. from what I've found. The only copy I could find was an old Image DVD from 1999. It does appear that the film is available in its entirety on YouTube, but I think this gorgeous masterpiece deserves a restoration and a wider release. It’s a must-see.