Carol Reed’s 'Odd Man Out' makes for a great companion piece to John Ford's 1935 classic 'The Informer'. It's the story of a reluctant IRA informant rattled with guilt over his responsibility for the death of his compatriot. Reed’s portrait of a wounded IRA leader stumbling through Belfast looking for refuge from the British authorities plays like a surreal Homer's Odyssey version of John Ford’s story.
Odd Man Out (1947) dir. Carol Reed
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan, Robert Beatty, Elwyn Brook-Jones
By Alan Bacchus
At the top, Jimmy McQueen (James Mason), the recently escaped leader of the clandestine ‘Organization’ of Northern Ireland, is plotting a bank heist to help fund the further activities of their war against the British. After the heist goes awry McQueen is stranded from his colleagues, stumbling away from the authorities. As his men scramble to find him, the British hunt is intensified, and one by one McQueen’s men are captured.
Throughout the day McQueen stumbles from one situation to another encountering the citizens of the town he’s sworn to help. Unfortunately his presence in the various bars, cabs or flats he moves through is met with fear and hostility more than anything else. The only one looking after McQueen’s best interests is his girlfriend, who yearns to reconnect with him and save him from British authorities or the opportunistic vultures within his own people.
While The Informer was unabashedly sympathetic to the IRA, Reed’s film is not so clear cut. The explicit non-use of the name IRA in favour of the innocuous term ‘The Organization’ suggests some trepidation on Reed’s part not to make a political statement. Despite some opinions of other critics, from these eyes Reed walks a fine line between condemnation of the IRA movement and patriotic support.
At every turn in McQueen’s journey he’s met with schemers and subverters looking to capitalize or profit on having knowledge of his whereabouts – a particularly negative treatment of Irish nationalism. Whereas in Ford’s picture, other than the lead character’s betrayal at the beginning, there’s a familial feeling of collectivism and support for each other.
Of course, Reed’s picture could be classified tonally as a noir as opposed to Ford’s elegant melodramatic treatment of his story. Made in 1947 Odd Man Out is as tense and unsettling as the noir genre demands. Visually, Robert Krasker’s contrast and shadowy photography seems like a practice run for Reed/Krasker’s cinematic visual perfection of The Third Man a few years later.
Arguably Reed reaches farther than he did in The Third Man in terms of visual image as metaphorical storytelling. Watch the changing environment as McQueen’s state becomes more dour. At the beginning it’s bright and cheerful, reflecting the optimism of his plan. But after he’s shot and begins to wander the city for help, sun turns into rain, then fog, then snow – the full gamut of weather conditions like one’s life flashing before one’s eyes the moment before death.
While the narrative is directed by the movements of McQueen throughout the day, arguably his presence is a mere prop for Reed to craft his rather compartmentalized individual scenes and set pieces. Each new sequence is dominated by a new scene-stealing supporting character. An example is the woman who betrays McQueen’s two men, who at first think they’re in the company of a friendly supporter when in reality she's a backstabbing traitor. The crazed painter who desires to find McQueen in order to paint the emotion of man near death is as treacherous a portrayal of patriotism as anything I can think of.
Films like Odd Man Out and The Informer survive well after many years, not only because of the filmmakers' superlative eye behind the camera, but also because of the complex and intellectually challenging reactions of the characters to their intense situations.