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Tag Archives: James Mason

Odd Man Out (Jan. 30, 1947)

Odd Man Out
Odd Man Out (1947)
Directed by Carol Reed
Two Cities Films

Odd Man Out is a terrific film. It might not be — as the lobby card above boasts — “the most exciting motion picture ever made,” but it’s a damned good one, with masterful direction by Carol Reed and a hypnotic lead performance by James Mason.

The film, which is based on a novel by F.L. Green, opens with a disclaimer that it isn’t “concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”

Mason plays a revolutionary leader named Johnny McQueen, fresh out of the clink and planning a big heist. The Irish Republican Army is never mentioned outright — McQueen’s group is simply called “the organisation” — but the film takes place in Belfast, so you can connect the dots, if you care to.

However you choose to interpret the obfuscation of the I.R.A. in Odd Man Out, there’s little denying that it’s an apolitical film, more concerned with one man’s existential journey than with making any kind of political statement.

In the first scene of the film, we see Johnny McQueen holed up in a safehouse, planning a payroll robbery of a textile mill with his boys. Also present is the woman who loves him, Kathleen Sullivan (played by Kathleen Ryan). Things look and sound all right until one of Johnny’s boys approaches him, and tells him he’s concerned about Johnny’s ability to handle the job. Johnny was in prison for several years for blowing up a police station. He’s only been on the lam a little while, and confined to the safehouse the whole time.

Johnny brushes off his lieutenant’s concerns, but as soon as the plan is in motion, we realize that Johnny might have been wrong to lead the robbery. In a subjective sequence, we see the busy streets of Belfast from Johnny’s point of view. Cars whiz past, streetcars with grinding wheels pass by close enough to touch, people hurry to and fro, and the whole smoky mess looks too cramped and too large at the same time.

If you’re a fan of realistic heist movies, the robbery scene in Odd Man Out will meet with your approval. It’s not overly complicated, and it’s accomplished quickly, but it’s full of tension, especially since Johnny seems about to crack at any moment.

He and his boys make it out with the money, but a mill guard tackles Johnny as he hesitates on the front steps of the factory. The two men wrestle, and each takes a bullet. The wounded Johnny falls off the running board of the getaway car, and his boys lose him in the confusion.

Odd Man Out is a tense film. It takes place over the course of the night following the mill robbery, and Reed and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, box their subjects in. The members of “the organisation” are pursued by police on foot, through dark alleys, over rooftops, and even through middle-class homes. (Reed frequently juxtaposes the activities of the city’s regular citizens with the activities of its criminal underclass.)

James Mason has little dialogue in the film, but his performance is amazing. He feels guilt, remorse, confusion, anger, loneliness, and even suffers hallucinations as he loses blood and seems to always be marching toward death. His performance is sympathetic, but keeps the viewer at a distance. This isn’t a film noir about a regular Joe who’s caught up in circumstances beyond his control. Every move Johnny made in his life has led him to this point, and he knows it.

Aside from Mason, most of the actors in the film were regulars on the stage of the Abbey Theatre (which could be why none of their accents sound quite right — they’re all from the wrong end of the island). Fans of British cinema and television will recognize plenty of them.

Reed’s most famous film is The Third Man, which he made in 1949. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen The Third Man, but I thought Odd Man Out was a stronger picture. Mason is a more compelling central presence than any of the actors are in The Third Man, and the music, cinematography, editing, and direction are all tighter in Odd Man Out.

Odd Man Out is a difficult film to classify. It starts out as a straightforward crime picture, but by the end of the film, Johnny’s journey takes on a surreal quality. A scene late in the picture in which he’s sheltered by a mad painter (Robert Newton) has the quality of a lively Samuel Beckett play.

The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1947, and received the BAFTA award for Best British Film in 1948. Fergus McDonnell was nominated for an Academy Award in 1948 for best editing, but Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish ended up winning for Body and Soul.

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The Seventh Veil (Feb. 15, 1946)

Compton Bennett’s film The Seventh Veil premiered in London on October 18, 1945. It was the biggest box office success of the year in Britain. The first record of its showing in the United States I can find is on Christmas day, 1945, in New York City. It went into wide release in the U.S. on February 15, 1946, and won an Academy Award the next year for best original screenplay. The story and script were by Sydney and Muriel Box. Sydney Box also produced the film.

The title refers to the seven veils that Salomé peeled away in history’s most famous striptease. As Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) explains to his colleagues, “The human mind is like Salomé at the beginning of her dance, hidden from the outside world by seven veils. Veils of reserve, shyness, fear. Now, with friends the average person will drop first one veil, then another, maybe three or four altogether. With a lover, she will take off five. Or even six. But never the seventh. Never. You see, the human mind likes to cover its nakedness, too, and keep its private thoughts to itself. Salomé dropped her seventh veil of her own free will, but you will never get the human mind to do that.”

The mind Dr. Larsen is attempting to strip bare is that of Francesca Cunningham (Ann Todd), a concert pianist who has lost the will to live, and who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. For the first hour of the film, her psychoanalytic sessions with Dr. Larsen act mostly as a framing device for Francesca’s flashbacks, but by the end, the high-minded hooey is laid on nearly as thick as it is in Alfred Hitchcock’s contemporaneous film Spellbound.

In her first flashback, Francesa recalls her schoolgirl days with her friend Susan Brook (Yvonne Owen). Susan’s insouciance towards academics is responsible for both of them being late to class one too many times. If Susan is punished, we don’t see it. Francesca’s punishment, however, will have dire ramifications. Brutally beaten across the backs of her hands with a ruler on the morning of her scholarship recital, she blows it completely, and is so devastated she gives up the piano.

When she is orphaned at the age of 17, Francesca is taken in by her uncle Nicholas (James Mason), a man whom she barely knows. She learns that the term “uncle” is a misnomer, since Nicholas is actually her father’s second cousin. Interestingly, both Mason and Todd were 36 years old when they appeared in this film. Their lack of an age difference isn’t too distracting, though. Todd has a wan, ethereal visage that lends itself to playing young, and Mason’s dark, Mephistophelian countenance is eternally middle-aged and handsome.

Nicholas is a confirmed bachelor who walks with a slight limp and hates women. He is also a brilliant music teacher, although his own skills as a musician are only average. Under his sometimes cruel tutelage, Francesca practices four to five hours a day, and eventually becomes an accomplished musician. Nicholas’s control over her comes at a cost. While she is studying at the Royal College of Music, Francesca falls in love with an American swing band leader named Peter Gay (Hugh McDermott). When Francesca tells Nicholas that she is engaged, he refuses to give his consent, since she has not yet reached her age of majority (in this case, 21), and tells her she will leave with him for Paris immediately. She does so, and continues her education in Europe.

For a melodrama, The Seventh Veil manages to be fairly gripping, especially if you find depictions of live performances stressful. When Francesca makes her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Muir Mathieson), performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, the film cuts between Francesca sitting at the piano, her hands (doubled by the pianist Eileen Joyce), Nicholas standing offstage, and her old friend Susan, who is in the front row. Not only does Susan, now a wealthy socialite, enter late and talk during the performance, but her mere presence reminds Francesca so strongly of the brutal whipping her hands received as a girl that the act of playing becomes almost too much to bear. She makes it through the performance, but when she rises to bow, she collapses from sheer exhaustion.

Francesca’s next trial — and the one that will result in her institutionalization — comes when Nicholas hires an artist named Maxwell Leyden (Albert Lieven) to paint her portrait. Francesca and Maxwell fall in love and go away to live together, despite Nicholas’s violent objections, but after a car accident, Francesca becomes convinced that her hands are irreparably damaged and she will never play again. Dr. Larsen, however, tells her there is nothing physically wrong with her, and he makes it his mission to cure her.

In the end, it is a recording of the simple, beautiful melody of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique,” along with a good old-fashioned session of hypnosis, that frees Francesca from her mental prison. The climax of the film does not hinge on whether or not she will perform again, however. It hinges on which of the three men in her life she will end up with; Peter, Maxwell, or Nicholas.

As soon as her choice is made, the film ends. There is no depiction of consequences. How satisfying the viewer finds the ending partly depends on which male character they like best, I suppose, although there are other considerations, such as how one feels about the question of whether it is better to be a great artist or to be happy, or even if Francesca can have one without the other. Personally, I found it all a bit ridiculous, but I enjoyed the film overall.