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Tag Archives: Kitty Kirwan

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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I Know Where I’m Going (Nov. 16, 1945)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the talented pair of writers, producers, and directors whose early collaborations included One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944), worked together under the name “The Archers” throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and produced some of the most enduring films in British history. Powell was a native-born Englishman. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who found refuge in London and who prided himself on being “more English than the English.”

I Know Where I’m Going, which premiered in London on November 16, 1945, is a warm, romantic drama. The film stars Wendy Hiller as Joan Webster, a stubborn young woman who, according the narrator, “always knew where she was going.” After a montage that shows Joan’s growth from headstrong toddler to headstrong teenager to headstrong 25-year-old, we see her dressed in smart clothes, meeting her father (played by George Carney) at a nightclub, where she blithely informs him that she plans to travel to Kiloran island in Scotland to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy, middle-aged industrialist whom she has never met. Her father is aghast, but, as always, Joan knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s doing.

Handled differently, this setup could lead to a grim, Victorian melodrama, but I Know Where I’m Going is a playful film with touches of magical realism. On her trek to the Hebrides, Powell and Pressburger delight in each leg of her long journey (and there are many), and pepper the montage with fanciful touches, such as a map with hills made of tartan plaid, a dream sequence in which Joan’s father marries her to the chemical company owned by Bellinger (literally), and an old man’s top hat that becomes the whistling chimney of a steam engine.

On the last leg of her journey, she is forced to put up in the Isle of Mull, as weather conditions do not permit water travel to Kiloran. Joan stays in touch with Bellinger, who is never seen, only heard (as a stuffy voice on the other end of a telephone). While cooling her heels in Mull, Joan meets a charming, soft-spoken serviceman named Torquil MacNeil, who is on an eight-day leave. (Torquil is played by Roger Livesey, in a role originally intended for James Mason.)

The joke implicit in the title becomes more and more clear as Joan and Torquil begin to fall for each other. The closer they become, the more determined she is to reach Kiloran. Eventually willing to risk life and limb to get there, it becomes clear that at least when it comes to love, she has no idea where she is going, and is too hard-headed to see anything clearly.

Livesey, who was in his late thirties when this film was made, was originally told that he was too old and too heavy to play the role of the 33-year-old Torquil, but he very quickly slimmed down to get the part, and he cuts a dashing figure, although not a classically handsome one. Interestingly, Livesey never set foot in the Western Isles of Scotland, where most of the film’s exteriors were shot. He was starring in a play in the West End during filming, so Powell and Pressburger made clever use of a body double for long shots, and filmed all of Livesey’s interior scenes at Denham Studios, in England.

Besides its fine performances and its involving love story, I Know Where I’m Going is enjoyable to watch simply because Powell and Pressburger show such incredible attention to detail. The interiors may be shot on a soundstage, but it’s easy to forget that with effects that perfectly marry them to the location footage, such as rain lashing the windows, subtle lighting, and the shadows of tree branches moving back and forth on the walls of the houses and cottages on the island. There are no short cuts or cut corners in this film. Joan’s dreams don’t appear in a cloud of dry ice or in soft focus, they swirl kaleidoscopically around her head. And elements that might seem silly in another film, such as an ancient curse hanging over Torquil’s head, seem palpably real when they’re embodied by shadowy, decrepit, and glorious real-world locations like Moy Castle.