Bucket List Movie #482: Odd Man Out (1947)
Carol Reed is a name that didn't resonate with me when I first heard it, so imagine my embarrassment when I discovered that he not only directed the classic musical Oliver! and the sprawling biopic The Agony and the Ecstasy, but The Third Man, one of the most beloved, dissected film noirs ever made. I kid you not, I thought for sure Orson Welles directed it. Can I help it that Welles's mythos is such that it eclipses everyone else (no, that is not a veiled insult about his weight)? Well, what's the point of this hub if I can't learn something once in a while?
The unassuming Reed directed today's BLM, 1947's Odd Man Out, starring the great James Mason. I will be eternally grateful to comedian Eddie Izzard for making modern audiences privy to Mason. For the record, Izzard does a near-perfect imitation of Mason whenever he's playing God in his stand-up routines.
James Mason (1909-1984) is always regarded with both esteem and near-patronizing affection. A fine, if sometimes over-the-top actor, his trademark is his husky voice that always made him sound gruffly dignified and somewhat inebriated. Michael York has this same quality, as did Peter O'Toole (though, in O'Toole's case, he most likely was inebriated). Mason is best remembered as the ill-fated Norman Maine in the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and as the villain in the Hitchcock crowd-pleaser North by Northwest. Thinking of the latter film, I wonder if Mason was cast because he resembled a mirror-universe version of Cary Grant: yes, he was darkly handsome, charismatic and even debonair at times, but Mason was intense where Grant was playful; shady where Grant was merely cagey, Mason's looks slightly offbeat while Grant's were enviable, Mason's rumble of a voice a severe contrast to Grant's signature tenor.
Odd Man Out is anything but a Hollywood crowd-pleaser. In it, Mason plays Johnny McQueen, a fugitive and key member of the IRA (they're never referred to by name, but you can easily infer that it's them). He has been hiding out at his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan)'s house for six months, and he and his men are planning to rob a mill to obtain funds for their cause, even though Johnny doesn't seem physically up to snuff for the task. Nevertheless, Johnny leads the others in the heist, but is shot during a scuffle with an armed cashier, shot before he kills him.
The now wounded (and wanted) Johnny drags his profusely bleeding arm around town, staggering from place to place, fighting back pain-induced hallucinations, which are preferable to the very real people who can offer little or no aid, or who want to exploit him for their own personal gains.
The plot of Odd Man Out brought to mind the Fritz Lang classic M, which was about a criminal fleeing those who want nothing more than to claim the bounty on the head. Granted, radical Johnny is infinitely more sympathetic than Peter Lorre's repulsive child molester/murderer, but the movie refuses to paint its characters in such broad strokes. There will always be debate whether the IRA were a ragtag bunch of rebels standing up against a very real injustice, or merely a terrorist gang of thugs. The movie does not let Johnny completely off the hook; after all, he did rob a mill, and he killed a man who may have had a gun, but was trying to defend himself. Johnny does start the movie off questioning the methods of his organization, but he does nothing to stop himself or others from carrying them out.
Likewise, he is surrounded by people who can't take him to the hospital or turn him into the police, because, well, the last thing you wanted to do was piss off the IRA during this time. Still, the impractical, short-sighted selfishness of the citizens is nothing short of appalling. Why don't they take him to the hospital under a "John Doe"? Surely they did that sort of thing in Ireland. There are no clear-cut answers, and the heroes and villains aren't so easily defined.
I personally didn't care for this movie, but I can't help but commend Reed for tackling such an unpopular subject matter that no one wanted to touch. Mason is affecting and memorable as Johnny, even if his Irish accent tends to ebb and flow. I really wish they had cast someone equally passionate as Kathleen, for Kathleen Ryan plays her as such a drab, sullen-faced cypher, it makes you wonder what a dedicated radical such as Johnny could see in such a drip.
Odd Man Out is a well-made, unusual film noir that has aged remarkably well (though one might laugh involuntarily at how long Johnny evades death from profuse bleeding), and it's certainly a fine showcase for Mason's talents.