Monday, April 20, 2015

ODD MAN OUT: Blu-ray (J. Arthur Rank/Two Cities 1947) Criterion

Before succumbing to the elephantiasis of his later career, primarily known for lumbering would-be epics (The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965) and big bloated musical extravaganzas (Oliver! 1968), director, Carol Reed was best known for crafting superb existential, metaphysical melodramas, directing, arguably, the greatest post-war mystery/thriller of them all; 1949’s The Third Man. However, in the shadow of this magnum opus remained two extraordinary masterworks (The Fallen Idol, 1948 and Odd Man Out, 1947); the latter, remarkable for its’ ubiquitous morbidity and unapologetically pessimistic view of the traditional heroic figure.  Thematically, Odd Man Out is a queerly complex amalgam of the noir thriller and Shakespearean tragedy; British cinema’s first major effort to peel back the agrarian façade of Ireland to reveal its unrepentant, dark urban landscape, populated by unscrupulous reprobates.  Almost from the beginning, the movie ran into complications at home and abroad; Reed’s desire to shoot F.L. Green’s scathing novel on location in Belfast, incurring the local government’s considerable ire, since virtually all of the actors to partake in this London-centric melodrama were not indigenous to the region.
Odd Man Out was distributed by J. Arthur Rank, but made for fiery Italian producer, Filippo Del Giudice’s Two Cities Production Company.  With Odd Man Out, Giudice sought to give Hollywood’s supremacy a real run for its money. Indeed, Odd Man Out is lavishly appointed with period recreations of Belfast that mark it as a ‘prestige picture’. Having left fascist Italy shortly before the war, Giudice was attracted to Odd Man Out primarily as a propaganda piece; appalled, in fact, to discover certain factions of the IRA were so desperate for their independence they had contemplated allegiance to the Nazis in order to hasten England’s demise. Green’s novel had described ‘the organization’ (code for the IRA) as an omnipotent plague; the book’s Johnny McQueen fermenting terrorism to split an already badly divided nation wide open. At the crux of the novel’s volatile story line remained a kernel of truth dedicated to the past: Ireland’s failed ‘War of Independence’ (a.k.a. Anglo-Irish War: 1919-1921) and its inevitable animosity created by the artificial partitioning of Ireland into six disparate counties in the north, dominated by a protestant majority, and twenty-six in the south, harboring a Catholic minority.
The novel, Odd Man Out is undeniably hostile toward the organization’s purpose. It’s also fairly unsympathetic regarding the fate of our antagonist, Johnny McQueen. In reinventing the story for British cinema, director, Carol Reed hired Green to adapt the screenplay, co-authored by R.C. Sherriff, whom Reed used as a buffer to expunge virtually all the novel’s politicized back story. Henceforth, Odd Man Out – the movie – would concentrate on the plight of a failed martyr; a man who, in grappling with his own fragile beliefs inadvertently jeopardizes not only his politics but also his life. Nevertheless, Odd Man Out is the first movie to openly deal with the harsh urban realities of Ireland. Gone is the cinema folklore dedicated to benevolent agrarians with their blarney stone charm for wee four-leaf shamrocks and the ‘little people’.  Odd Man Out ensnares our Johnny McQueen and his cohorts in an ever-constricting urban landscape of oppressive claustrophobia; Reed even employing elements of wind, rain and snow as the natural order casting its own judgement on Johnny and his friends.
While Odd Man Out reports to be taking place in Belfast, Reed had great difficulty convincing the government of his more altruistic intentions. Indeed, civic authorities denied him the necessary permits to shoot there; fearing depictions of their gun-toting police and brewing civil unrest would cast a very jaundice pall upon the nation’s aspiring tourist trade. Reed was successful at sneaking in a second unit. Yet, apart from the establishing aerial view of Belfast and a few choice master shots conducted at ground level, Odd Man Out is ultimately – and very effectively – the byproduct of that self-same London-centric film culture as its predecessors; photographed on sound stages at Denham Studios, including elaborate recreations of Belfast’s iconic clock tower as well as its famed Crown Pub; London’s Shoreditch district, sparsely populated, a wasteland dotted in abandoned bomb shelters and dingy tenement houses, supplying the necessary starkness and gloom. The movie’s bookends comparatively differ from the beginning and end of Green’s novel; Reed ordering a new opener to illustrate Johnny’s ambivalence toward committing the mill robbery (the book merely begins with a botched stick-up); the finale changed from its’ novelized murder/suicide to the cinema’s self-defense scenario. This latter alteration was made purely from necessity, to conform to Hollywood’s more stringent code of censorship and thus secure the movie’s release in America.
Odd Man Out’s stylistic design is a fairly transparent homage to America’s film noir movement; itself, borrowing heavily from German Expressionism and French poetic realism. Robert Krasker’s cinematography, with its harsh chiaroscuro lighting, densely shadowed alleys and crumbling rubble byways, lends a patina of Hollywood-esque magic and European exoticism to the postwar gloom; augmented by two neorealist deliria. In the first, Krasker employs skewed camera angles and lightly brushed Vaseline around the edges of his lens to suggest Johnny’s antipathy for committing the crime, even as he and his cohorts, Pat (Cyril Cusack), Denis (Robert Beatty), Nolan (Dan O'Herlihy) and Murphy (Roy Irving) prepare for their ill-timed rendezvous with destiny. Unlike the novel, the cinematic Johnny McQueen only commits murder after he is wounded by an assailant; thereafter, dogged by gnawing remembrances of taking another man’s life.  Near movie’s end, Johnny suffers a second hallucinogenic nightmare; impressively disturbing, as portraits painted by the mentally unsound artist, Lukey (Robert Newton) swoop down from the walls of his dilapidated studio, forming an army of panged and accusatory faces to confront Johnny; the benevolent figure of Father Tom (W.G. Fay) suddenly appearing amidst this motley crew to offer a fleeting glimpse of salvation.
Casting James Mason as Johnny McQueen adds a certain empathetic glamour to the role. Mason, who spends most of Odd Man Out losing an incredible amount of blood from his gaping shoulder wound, manages to skulk about these inhospitably desolate and seedy neighborhoods where once a happier childhood had likely been spent, looking perpetually panged, gaunt, emasculated and so very near to death, nevertheless, exuding the sort of megawatt ‘star quality’ that connects on an intuitive emotional level. His Johnny is a man of very few words, but his silent ambivalence lingers in the mind’s eye even when he is not on the screen. The case for Robert Newton is a little less convincingly made; chiefly because Newton’s Lukey, the tormented artist, is a grandstanding uber-violent drunk stricken with paralytic infantilism. He is incalculably depraved and perversely conflicted in his dubious vision quest for immortality via a bizarre painterly style. He wishes to paint Johnny McQueen as a martyr, to capture the look of death for his canvass. Talk about art imitating life!
Odd Man Out opens with a quietly frenetic pre-mill robbery discussion, Johnny holding court inside the cramped upstairs bedroom belonging to his darling, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) and her staunchly supportive, Grannie (Kitty Kirwan). He’s been on the lam for nearly six months after a daring prison break, ordered by the organization to take part in a robbery to secure some badly needed funds. Pat, Nolan, Murphy and Denis listen intently to Johnny’s plans. He cautions them against using their guns, merely employing them to threaten rather than to kill. After the rest of the team has departed for their assigned positions, Denis informs Johnny of the men’s reluctance to have him lead their expedition. Johnny’s time in prison has made him soft. Johnny denies this claim. Kathleen begs him to reconsider. But it’s too late. The die has been cast. And so, the mill robbery takes place; Johnny hesitating momentarily on the steps, suffering from some sort of dizzy spell after the crime is committed; enough to be ambushed by a well-intentioned mill cashier whom he wrestles to the ground and shoots to death in order to escape.
Unable to successfully pull Johnny back into their getaway car, a panicked Pat drives off, leaving Johnny to fend for himself.  Disorientated, Johnny struggles to his feet, stumbling through a derelict neighborhood and taking refuge inside one of the abandoned fallout shelters left over from the war. There, he hallucinates being back in prison, telling what he thinks is a guard of his curious dream about robbing the mill; momentarily awakening from this stupor and realizing he has just confessed his crime to a little girl come in search of her wayward ball.  Night falls and Johnny is confronted by two young lovers endeavoring to use the shelter for their flagrante delicto.  In the meantime, Denis and the others rendezvous at Kathleen’s; Denis, appalled by their abandonment, orders the men to spread out in search of Johnny before the police find him. Alas, their ineffectual search draws undue attention and the police pursue them through a series of darkened allies and byways. Pat encourages Nolan and Murphy to stop off at Theresa O’Brien’s house of ill repute. However, Murphy does not trust the dowager and hurries along. Indeed, such split-second clairvoyance has saved his life. For after pretending to favor Pat and Nolan with a drink in her parlor, Theresa hurries off to warn her other guests to clear out; telephoning the police and divulging Pat and Nolan’s whereabouts. She then pretends to have come by a rumor the police are closing in; forcing Pat and Nolan into the street where they are gunned down by waiting officers.
Meanwhile, Denis locates Johnny. He is terribly weak and unlikely to survive in his present condition. As the police surround the area Denis creates a diversion to draw them away from the shelter. Johnny makes a valiant attempt at escape. However, he collapses in the street; momentarily rescued by Maureen (All Clery) and Maudie (Beryl Measor) who believe he has been struck by a passing lorry. When they realize who Johnny is their attitude towards him changes from helpful to cautious. A similar fate befalls Johnny after he gets into a hansom cab; its driver, Gin (Joseph Tomelty) nervously unloading his fare on the outskirts of town. Understandably, no one wants to align themselves with a fugitive from justice. As fate would have it, the beggar, Shell (F. J. McCormick) has identified Johnny. Desiring a handsome reward for Johnny’s return to the police, Shell toddles off to Father Tom. By sheer luck, Kathleen has also come to the rectory looking for guidance, having arranged passage for Johnny and herself aboard a freighter bound for the Americas at midnight.
Father Tom preys upon Shell’s naiveté and compassion as he persuades Shell to fetch Johnny. However, while dropping off his pet bird at home, Shell is accosted by Lukey (Robert Newton), the mentally deranged artist who shares residency inside the abandoned building each calls home. Lukey has been toiling to paint a portrait of martyred death, stumbling across the inspired notion to use Johnny as his model. Alas, both men are in for a rude awakening as Johnny, momentarily revived, stumbles into the Crown Pub. Its proprietor, Fencie (William Hartnell) immediately recognizes Johnny. However, desiring to remain neutral, Fencie hides Johnny in a private booth until after hours. Sensing Shell has deprived him of his art, Lukey descends on the bar, accosting its patrons and raising hell. Fencie chases his paying customers out to avoid a scene with the police, ordering Shell and Lukey to cart Johnny off before anyone is the wiser. Back a Lukey’s makeshift studio, Johnny is propped up in a chair for his portrait sitting.  Disgraced medical student, Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones) uses his practical training to patch up Johnny's shoulder as best he can. Johnny suffers a vision of Father Tom and quotes aloud 1st Corinthians, baffling Lukey and Shell.
Back at the rectory, a light snow begins to fall. Father Tom lies to an empathetic police inspector (Denis O'Dea) searching for clues as Kathleen quietly slips away. Desperate to reunite Johnny with Kathleen, Shell starts off for the rectory with Johnny stumbling close behind. His general inability to reason between reality and fantasies grotesquely imagined through his dying haze leaves Johnny feeling even more isolated. The end is near. The police are closing in. Kathleen suddenly appears. At first, neither can believe the other is real; Johnny commanding if this apparition be genuine, for it to rush to his aid and embrace him with all her heart. Kathleen complies. She explains her plan of escape aboard the steamer. Alas, the ship has already left port. In this bittersweet moment of farewell, Kathleen realizes what she must do. She reaches for the gun in Johnny’s coat pocket. “Is it far?” Johnny inquires, still fanaticizing their departure. “It’s a long way, Johnny,” Kathleen tenderly confides, “But I’m coming with you.” Pointing the gun at the police, Kathleen fires several benign rounds. The police reciprocate with a hailstorm of bullets. Johnny and Kathleen are killed; Father Tom, led by Shell, discovering their lifeless bodies in the new fallen snow.
Although blunted from the novel’s original intent, the finale to Odd Man Out is unapologetically bleak. In retrospect, it plays to our present day appreciation for flawed humanity; Reed tempering the overwrought cynicism of the piece with William Alywn’s sobering and poignant underscore. Filippo Del Giudice’s fervent belief in the power of movies as great art has afforded Carol Reed unbounded opportunities to pursue his own cinematic passions, providing the old art lover with nothing less than a full flourish of inspired greatness.  Odd Man Out is perhaps Reed’s most triumphantly artistic movie, although devotees of The Third Man will sincerely disagree. It is impossible to compare these two films. Perhaps, the only similarity shared between them is Reed’s appreciation for two irreconcilable worlds: the bygone prewar gemütlichkeit and its postwar scarcity. However, whereas The Third Man takes rather playful advantage of American ‘star power’ (in the likes of Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles), setting its action amidst the crumbling ruins of old Vienna, with only flashes of its former decadence fleetingly in evidence, Odd Man Out explores the devastating isolationism of a Belfast one cannot imagine ever possessing such warmth or charm, seen through the eyes of a British star, yet to emerge as such on the other side of the Atlantic.
Depending on one’s point of view, James Mason’s autonomy either helped or hindered the movie’s popularity then. Herein, contemporary audiences, old enough to recall Mason’s Hollywood tenure, are at a greater advantage. Only in retrospect, is he already a star on par with a Cooper, Gable or Brando, and therefore, a distinct and familiar presence in this film. Is it this retrospective star quality we find intoxicating today?  Or rather, is it Mason’s innate ability to transcend ‘star quality’ and still appear queerly appealing as the nondescript, long-suffering and intellectualized fatalist of the piece that draws us into this story?  Mason’s career was built upon such weak and ineffectual men, always of a particular inner failing and incapable of escaping it, except in death. His Johnny McQueen is a mournful shill; a man whose conscience has suffered a conversion in prison that he cannot openly confess without betraying his ensconced political beliefs. The film’s nihilistic finale brings Reed’s focus full circle, back to the romantic dilemma facing young lovers torn asunder by the inhospitable hands of fate.  As a novel, Odd Man Out was a condemnation of Ireland’s volatile political landmines, its author casting a harsh pall upon the forces he believe responsible for its civil unrest. Deprived of this politicized backbone, the movie excels in an entirely different direction; the sad-eyed adieu to love amongst these ruins.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Odd Man Out falls just a tad short of expectations; presumably, at the mercy of less than perfectly archived materials, but the recipient of considerable clean-up and restoration.  Indeed, this is a new 2K scan apart from the one made from original nitrate 35mm prints held in trust at the BFI National Archive. By comparison, the British release of Odd Man Out appears slightly brighter and sharper than Criterion’s transfer, although shadow definition is superior on Criterion’s release. I am rather torn as to which 1080p transfer I prefer. Both have their pluses and minuses; the BFI shows untoward black crush and sharpness that may or may not be indigenous to the original film elements. I’ll side with the Criterion here, as it reveals a considerable amount of information to the right of frame; the BFI edition looking slightly cropped by comparison. At times, fine details in Criterion’s transfer are lost, as the image is decidedly darker overall.
Alas, the BFI edition is plagued by the prominence of age-related damage, infinitely more resolved on the Criterion, though not entirely eradicated.  Film grain fluctuates throughout this presentation. Do I love it or hate it? Hmmmm. Love it, I suppose, particularly when coupled with Criterion’s image stabilization. I still think the BFI image is superior in some regards to Criterion and vice versa; hence, my being torn to recommend one over the other.  Criterion’s PCM mono audio is adequate rather than spectacular; dynamic range limited by the elements, I suppose, but also lagging in intensity. Don’t worry about background hiss because there isn’t any, although higher frequencies suffer from some light unevenness. We get three featurettes to augment our appreciation of the movie: new interviews with British cinema scholar, John Hill, Postwar Poetry, a short documentary about the making of the film, and a rather truncated interview with music scholar, Jeff Smith discussing William Alwyn’s score. Perhaps the best extra herein is ‘Home, James’; a superb documentary made in 1972, following James Mason as he returns to his home town. Criterion loves its radio adaptations. I confess, I’ve never listened to one of the many featured on their discs in its entirety.  Finally, there’s a printed essay from critic, Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: highly recommended with caveats regarding the overall quality of the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

4

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