' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Odd Man Out (1947)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Odd Man Out (1947)

The “Odd Man Out” bestowing Carol Reed’s 1947 film its title is Jimmy McQueen (James Mason). Though he’s not specifically a member of the IRA and though he’s not specifically located in Belfast and though he isn’t specifically caught up in The Troubles, well, quite obviously he’s all three things. He’s escaped the clink and holed up in the home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) for six months, plotting a bank heist to help fund his nameless organization’s various politically incendiary activities. Kathleen begs him not to go. He’s been house-ridden. He’s not ready. He talks her down, but then proves her right. At the tail-end of the robbery, he freezes up, and finds himself in a tussle with a man that finds the man dead and Jimmy severely wounded. He falls out of the getaway car which, in confusion, leaves him behind, leaving Jimmy all alone in a city where not only the law but those opposed to his organization are out to get him.


The recent “71” was kind of a reverse peephole version of “Odd Man Out.” There a solider in the national army was stranded behind enemy lines and hunted by the IRA. Though it carried psychological dimension, it was primarily rooted in the concept of a thriller, a question of Will He or Won’t He emerge alive? That’s fine, and it was well done, and its fine handling of the eternal question What Does It All Mean? emerged adroitly from that structure. “Odd Man Out”, however, is something very different. Though it begins as a sort of thriller, it eventually opts out of suspense for marching toward the inevitable, a psychological deep dive into the hearts of people. That’s the film’s phrase, not mine. The film “is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation,” an opening title card tells us, “but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.” By deliberately obfuscating its politics, its overriding concern is what’s in the hearts of people. What seems set up as a straightforward narrative – Man Lost, Man Must Find Way Home – eventually thrusts that narrative aside, and partially thrusts its protagonist aside, to take a wider view of a fraught situation. It’s an examination of a community and that community’s reaction to this injured man in front of him. Is he the Enemy or just, like, you know, a human?

“Odd Man Out” was several years in advance of Reed’s legit masterpiece, “The Third Man”, and you can feel the director applying the same sort of visual flourishes he would to such grand effect for a burnt out Vienna. Long shadows are constantly cast against brick walls. Johnny’s own reflection follows him everywhere he goes, illuminating the conflict the within himself, the consequences of taking a man’s life versus fighting to save his own, and staying alive when around every corner everything seems so bleak. He very much becomes a Christ figure, metaphorically carrying the cross throughout a day that gradually gives way from sun to rain to snow. Reed goes all in on this metaphor, repeatedly stuffing frames with cross-like images, and having Johnny encounter a gallery of fourteen men and women, his stations. It’s almost too much. At times, it is. The love story falters because Kathleen seems to view Johnny less with passion than reverence. (I’m definitely in the club that believes Jesus & Mary Magdalene were less Charles & Caroline Ingalls and more Sting & Trudie Styler.)

But there is also something wonderfully wicked about viewing a Biblical-like parable through the prism of noir. It’s virtually impossible not to consider the crucifixion in lockstep with the rebirth. Here, however, Johnny’s inevitable demise never feels like a signifier of Something Big, just another case of stone cold fatalism. And that’s why, frankly, I wish the film might have pushed its political agenda just a bit more. Though the character of Johnny McQueen is clearly meant to represent the IRA, there is a crucial difference between representing and being. And to draw an IRA leader as a modern day Christ.....well, then we might have truly seen what’s in the hearts of some people.

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