Friday, March 17, 2023

When Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling: “Odd Man Out”

For St. Patrick’s Day, it seems only right to focus on a film with an Irish pedigree. I could come up with something sweet and lively like John Ford’s The Quiet Man or Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Or perhaps a luminous animated adventure like The Secret of Kells. I’ve already written, with great affection, about Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-snubbed but wonderful The Banshees of Inisherin.

 So instead I’ll go back in time to praise a classic film by a Britisher, Carol Reed. He’s best known for directing Orson Welles and company in a taut international thriller, The Third Man (1949). And 20 years later he won an Oscar for helming a splashy film adaptation of a Broadway musical, Oliver! But some (including Reed’s biographer) consider his masterpiece to be a 1947 film set in Ireland during the time of The Troubles. It’s called Odd Man Out, Two master directors, Roman Polanski and Sam Peckinpah, cite it as one of their favorite films of all time. It also was the recipient of the inaugural BAFTA award for Best British Film.

 Critics have said that Odd Man Out dramatically captures the mood of post-World War II Europe, a time when dread and cynicism reigned supreme. Its backdrop is the ongoing street battle between Protestant and Roman Catholic forces over control of Northern Ireland, though the politics of the matter are not really discussed. Instead this is fundamentally a human rather than a political story, set in a Belfast that is never named. The focus is on a small cell of rebels who have been called on to commit a robbery in support of their cause. Their leader, Johnny, has been in hiding for six months following his escape from prison. He’s determined to do his part, though his weakened physical condition makes others beg him to stay behind. Of course the inevitable happens: he lacks the agility to make a quick escape, and suddenly he’s a fugitive.

 Johnny’s local fame is such that he’s immediately recognized by much of the citizenry, while his comrades too are endangered by his mishap. We see a cross-section of city life:  a priest who supports him, a well-heeled woman who betrays him, an eccentric who haplessly tries to help, lovers who stumble on him as he’s hiding—badly wounded—in a storage shed. His goal, in his increasingly disoriented state, is to get to the harbor. But the arrival of the young woman who loves him changes the equation, leading to an ending that’s intensely dramatic but also foreordained.

.Most of the actors in Odd Man Out, beautifully playing slice-of-life roles, were affiliated with Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre. But the leading man was an Englishman, James Mason, long before his Hollywood successes in such films as A Star is Born, North by Northwest and Lolita. Richard Burton noted in his diary that the part was originally offered to another Brit, Stewart Granger. But Granger, thumbing through the script, concluded that the role wasn’t big enough to interest him. What he overlooked was the fact that the part of Johnny—though short on dialogue—is intensely dramatic. He may not have much to say, but his plight, as a wounded man watching his death approach, is riveting. Wrote Burton, “It's probably the best thing that Mason has ever done and certainly the best film he's ever been in while poor Granger has never been in a good classic film at all.” According to Burton, “Granger tells the story ruefully against himself.”

 May the road rise up to meet you!



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