Wednesday, 5 February 2020
Noir Diary # 8:
Odds Against Tomorrow
(Robert Wise, 1959)
So here’s a question for you: when did Film Noir – in its original, American iteration - end?
Many fans and critics understandably regard Orson Welles’ masterful ‘Touch of Evil’ (released in April 1958) as the big full stop separating the genre’s core canon from the more self-conscious revivals and reinventions which began almost immediately after its demise, and indeed, the sight of Marlene Dietrich in her final screen role, striding off toward those looming Texas oil wells after delivering her concise final words on Welles’ Hank Quinlan, feels not only like the perfect epitaph for the noir world, but a darkly poetic kiss off for the Golden Age of Hollywood as a whole. Adios, indeed.
Nothing in culture is ever quite that neat and tidy though, and some filmmakers clearly missed the memo, leaving us with a few fascinating, transitional stragglers to try to awkwardly cram into noir’s core time-frame, Robert Wise’s ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ (released November 1959) foremost amongst them.
Before we begin discussing the film itself, a quick word on the title, as coined by William P. McGivern for his 1955 source novel. I’ve spoken before about how much I love the raw pulp poetry of these generic, one-size-fits-all crime story titles, and ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ is one of my absolute favourites in this regard. Hopefully I won’t need to elaborate too much on why that’s the case – it speaks for itself pretty well, although knowledge of the fact that one of the central characters is a compulsive gambler adds some helpful context.
Combine it with the poster image of a desperate-looking Harry Belafonte, raising his revolver toward the heavens with gritted teeth, and you’ll appreciate that the film has long been high on my “must watch” list, be it a noir, a modern crime film, or whatever else. It’s just a stunning word/image combo, irrespective of how you’d care to classify it.
In truth, most classic noirs from the mid/late ‘50s were to some extent aware of the genre/style they were working within, and in some cases, aware of the need to bend and reshape its conventions to reflect the uncertain socio-political realities of their era. By the end of the decade, making a film in black & white, in 4:3 academy ratio, was a conscious choice, rather than the default, for an American film. (In retrospect, it’s strange to reflect on the fact that such key late period noirs as ‘The Big Combo’ and ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ were actually shot widescreen.)
By keeping the action in ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ monochrome, confined to the tight limitations of a ‘square’ frame, Robert Wise and executive producer Belafonte seem to have been making a deliberate statement - we’re doing this one the old fashioned way. No fancy business, no bells n’ whistles – just a simple, blue collar crime flick with a minimal cast and a straight-forward, grab-the-money-and-run storyline.
This proposition is immediately confused however by the fact that ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’s credits sequence simultaneously takes a strikingly modernist stance, suggesting a film that’s setting out to get progressive in more ways than one. A veritable riot of animated, Saul Bass-esque text and kaleidoscopic, abstract imagery, the credits are cut to an impeccably sharp jazz score, composed by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and recorded by an ensemble including such luminaries as Bill Evans and Milt Jackson.
Such stylistic choices may not raise too many eye-brows these days, but in the context of a ‘50s Hollywood crime film, they scream MOD as clearly as a Small Faces reunion in a Lambretta factory, immediately placing the film in the same envelope-pushing category as Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ or Preminger’s ‘The Man with The Golden Arm’.
Once the story itself gets underway however, the approach is defiantly old school. Our setting is Upper Manhattan, and our characters exist in a world of cramped tenement apartments, down-at-heel bars and ill-lit back offices, with only the occasional bit of early morning location shooting in central park allowing them a breather. None of them are exactly what you’d call professional criminals, but they’ve all had their run-ins with the criminal underworld, skirting its perimeters like losers and misfits have since time immemorial - and when we join them, they’re each sufficiently desperate to take the plunge full time.
An ex-cop who got nailed on corruption charges at some point in the past, Burke (perennial ‘cop actor’ Ed Begley, whom we last encountered on the blog playing an unlikely Dr Henry Armitage in AIP’s The Dunwich Horror) now finds himself living in reduced circumstances in a pokey one-room office/apartment, trying to figure out a way to improve his lot and avenge himself against his former colleagues in the process.
The net result of Burke’s figurin’ is what he considers a fool-proof plan to turn over a bank in a small upstate industrial town, making use of an unguarded side door and a regular 6pm coffee delivery to swipe the entirety of the local factory’s weekly payroll whilst the doddering old clerks are busy counting it. Why, it’ll be like taking candy from a a baby etc etc, but naturally he still needs a couple of guys to help him out with the job. For obvious reasons, he can’t call on the services of any professional crooks, but… he’s got the number of a couple of schmucks who just might fit the bill.
Say hello then to Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), a middle-aged WWII vet with crippling anger management issues and an inability to hold down a legit job, who’s just served a stretch in the slammer for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight, and also to Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), a wild-living nightclub musician whose addiction to gambling has led him to a separation from his wife and child and left him heavily in debt to a local mobster.
Initially, both Slater and Ingram turn down Burke’s proposition cold after he invites them to his ‘office’ for a quiet chat. But, as their own individual circumstances deteriorate further over the coming days, they both feel they have no other choice but to slink back and reluctantly declare themselves ‘in’.
For a clearly delighted Burke, the game is on, but although the robbery he has in mind is one of the simplest in crime fiction history, this wouldn’t be a heist movie if inter-personal conflict didn’t threaten to bring down the whole operation before it’s even begun, and this is certainly telegraphed loud and clear in ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’.
Both Slater and Ingram are inexperienced, unpredictable and hate each other’s guts. Burke however is so enthused by the prospect of pulling off his big job that he turns a blind eye to this obvious problem, putting the plan into action with a bare minimum of preparation. What could possibly go wrong…?
As you will no doubt have observed, Harry Belafonte is black, which means that Johnny Ingram is also black. Earl Slater meanwhile is a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying racist, who has only consented to work with “a coloured boy” on the job with extreme reluctance. (Ryan voices Slater with a thick, southern twang that speaks of an ugly Confederate upbringing before war and/or marriage (we presume) eventually washed him up on the shores of the Hudson.) So, you can see where this train is headed.
For all that film noir may have purported to expose the ugly underbelly of American life during the the ‘40s and earlier ‘50s, issues of racial prejudice and inequality were rarely, if ever, allowed to intrude upon the genre’s exposure of an ugly white underbelly. Whilst I’m sure there must be exceptions, off the top of my head I find it difficult to come up with any examples of pre-1955 noir in which black characters play a larger role in the narrative than that of servants, sidekicks or one-scene-wonder bit players.
(Admittedly, noir did sometimes touch upon the travails of immigrants or ethnic minorities [see ‘Cry of the City’ (1948) or Thieves’ Highway (1949) for instance], but these stories tended to concern Italian, Irish or variously European characters; all groups which modern American viewers will no doubt consider as having been fully integrated into a more monolithic demographic of undifferentiated whiteness.)
Meanwhile, the only noirs I can think of in which racism features as a plot point are other self-aware, late period examples of the genre, made by directors known for their liberal / humane beliefs, and falling comfortably within a post-Civil Rights Movement timeframe.
(Specifically, I’m thinking here of Captain Quinlan’s victimisation of his town’s Mexican populace in the aforementioned ‘Touch of Evil’ – a brilliant depiction of the kind of ‘soft’/oblique racism that has made such a regrettable comeback in 21st century political discourse, incidentally - and Timothy Carey’s memorably nasty use of a racist insult to dismiss an over-attentive parking attendant in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ (1956).)
Abraham Polonsky’s script for ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ however is consistently, and unapologetically, preoccupied with issues of race, as is made clear from the film’s very first scene, which finds Slater jovially employing a racist epithet to refer to a little girl who bumps into him on the street as he approaches Burke’s office.
In throwing together a black man and a southern racist and ostensibly forcing them to work together, ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ has sometimes found itself labelled as the hard-boiled crime genre’s answer to Stanley Kramer’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958) – a label presumably applied by writers who have never actually seen the film, given that, in true noir tradition, it actually presents nothing less than a cruel, pessimistic reversal of Kramer’s ode to mutual respect and co-operation.
Here, our two central characters embody the masculine traditions of their respective cultures at their craven, self-destructive worst; right from the outset, there is ZERO prospect of Ingram and Slater coming together and settling their differences. When these men have been so twisted and chewed up by the socio-political dead-ends they were born into that they can’t respect themselves, Polonsky’s characteristically schematic script seems to be asking us, what chance could they possibly have of learning to respect each other?
(Still blacklisted on account of the socialist beliefs he articulated so clearly in his pre-HUAC one-two punch of ‘Body & Soul (1947) and ‘Force of Evil’ (1948), Polonsky pulled off a neat irony by using the name of a genuine black writer, John O. Killens, as his ‘beard’ on the ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ script.)
Structurally, the film’s pacing is deliberately uneven, with the first hour taking the form of a long, leisurely slow-burn, as we follow Ingram and Slater through their respective daily routines and dilemmas in the days leading up to the robbery, sticking so closely to the characters that we soon feel as if we know their lives inside out.
Once they leave the city and head upstate to carry out the robbery however, the pacing tightens up considerably, Robert Wise flexing his well-oiled ‘thriller’ muscles as the shit quickly, inevitably, and fatally hits the fan, from the worst possible combination of angles.
At this point, we have no expectation that Slater and Ingram will manage to cooperate for more than a matter of seconds before they’re at each other’s throats, and indeed this turns out to be the case. If the conclusion, which sees Ryan and Belafonte blasting away at each other whilst almost literally dancing on top of a powder keg, seems fairly heavy-handed in allegorical terms, the breathless fatalism of the film’s crazed, maniacal final minutes still stuns.
It is during the long, slow build up which precedes all this however that the film’s most compelling drama is really played out; as in his earlier scripts, Polonsky’s systematic demarcation of the social and financial pressures which have driven the film’s characters into a corner is both detailed and exhaustive.
Earl’s only outlets are drink and violence, and when – in one of the film’s best scenes – he finds himself combining the two by clobbering a feckless young solider in a neighbourhood bar, we feel as if he signs on for Burke’s robbery scheme more just to keep himself busy before depression and idleness land him back in prison than anything else.
Few American actors have been able to convey a sense of disappointment and self-disgust quite as convincingly, or with as much subtlety, as Robert Ryan, and his performance here is one of his very best (which is saying something), managing to almost wordlessly draw out the sympathetic, human side of what by any yardstick is a singularly dislikeable, wrong-headed character.
Whites can’t be trusted, seems to be his essential point; they’ll never share their shit with us, the only thing we can do is smash through and take it in the only way we can [for which read: crime and associated pursuits]. In this, Ingram is restating an already age-old argument which continued to echo through black American culture in the coming decades, from the startlingly heartfelt monologue delivered by Antonio Fargas as Pam Grier’s brother in Jack Hill’s ‘Foxy Brown’ (1974), to Paul Benjamin’s similar justification for the robbery he’s carried out in Barry Shear’s brilliant ‘Across 110th Street’ (1972), right through to the self-image projected by Ice T, N.W.A. and host of other gangsta-inclined MCs in the ‘90s and beyond.
The irony here of course is that Ingram’s attempts to battle the white system lead him straight into all the pitfalls The Man has left in wait for him. Certainly, this defiant hipster’s track record at the point at which we meet him offers little to be proud of – a debilitating gambling addiction, unpayable debts owed to an Italian mobster, estrangement from his family, and a tendency to work out his frustrations by getting drunk and clowning around on stage, humiliating his fellow musicians and potentially earning him the bums-rush from the one decent gig his talent actually has brought him. In his own way, he’s just as much of a hopeless loser as his opposite number, the stubborn bigot and convicted killer Slater.
Within the schema of Polonsky’s script, Winters’ character seems to represent the potential of an upwardly mobile female workforce, whilst Ingram’s wife’s presumed attempts to build a better life for her children through education and racial integration are contrasted with her husband’s selfish and immature attempts at rebellion.
Even noir fan favourite Gloria Grahame (‘The Big Heat’, ‘In a Lonely Place’ etc), who makes the best of an enjoyable though narratively irrelevant cameo as a neighbour with whom Ryan enjoys an extra-marital tryst, seems to present an unusually positive portrayal of female sexual independence, highlighting the pointed absence from this story of the traditional “femme fatale” figure, ready to soak up male guilt like a sponge.
We may have focused more on Polonsky’s input thus far, but, if you’ve kept reading up to this point, chances are you’ll be equally aware of Robert Wise’s formidable talents. One of those directors who seems doomed to be perpetually under-appreciated, condemned to “journeyman” rather than “auteur” status, Wise was one of the most articulate technicians of cinematic language to arise from Hollywood’s golden era, and his contributions to the noir canon in particular were exceptional. (1949’s ‘The Set-Up’, also starring Robert Ryan, would definitely find a place on my All Time Top 10 Noirs list, should I ever bother to make one.)
Suffice to say, Wise (who completed ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ shortly before getting to work on ‘West Side Story’) is at the top of his game here, whilst Joseph Brun’s photography is sharp and stark as it gets - probably veering closer to the ‘realist’ as opposed to ‘expressionist’ end of the noir spectrum, but certainly not lacking in style – the set-bound scenes in particular have all the angular shadows, venetian blinds and confining vertical lines a film studies class could ask for. Dede Allen also deserves a shout-out too for her impactful editing, which in turn is perfectly matched by the rhythms of Lewis’s flawlessly cool score.
For all that it stands out as a superior piece of film artistry however, and in spite of the exhaustive length at which I appear to have written about it, I must confess that, at times, ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ still somehow left me cold. Like ‘Force of Evil’ [which I wrote about as part of this post] before it, it’s a film I appreciated more than loved.
Though Polonsky’s script here lacks that earlier film’s indigestible, Brechtian dialogue (thank god), something about the systematic, almost bullet-pointed, way in which he defines his characters based upon their social and economic circumstances threatens to leave them lacking individual agency, curiously drained of some essential spark of humanity. Fine performances from the cast can always help to mitigate this of course, and god knows, Polonksy’s work certainly offers actors more to chew on than most Hollywood screenwriters, but another thing that didn’t quite work for me here, sad to say, is Harry Belafonte.
(‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ was shot independently for Belafonte’s HarBel production company after he personally acquired the rights to the book, and he retains an executive producer credit.)
It’s not that his performance is bad as such – indeed, he emphasises the essential gentleness and fragility of character extremely well, and portrays his blind fear very effectively. From a modern perspective though at least, Belafonte seems too squeaky clean, too polite, too eloquent to really convince as a young Harlem hipster with a gambling habit and a grudge against the white world.
In fairness though, what now seems like miscasting here was not necessarily the fault of either Belafonte or his collaborators. Lest we forget, ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ dates from an era in which merely putting a black actor centre stage in a straight drama was considered extremely daring.
Belafonte, like Sidney Poitier, may seem to project a mannered, rather quaint screen presence to us these days, but we must remember that as a fully-fledged black movie star during the ‘50s, he was stepping up to fill a space that previously didn’t even exist. Things would change immeasurably over the next few decades, of course, but it’s 1959 here folks, and realistically, getting a guy who was anything other than well-scrubbed with a nice smile in for this part was just NOT going to happen.
Though movie fans may have had a lot of good reasons to mourn the passing of the era of dark, monochrome glamour of which ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ represents perhaps the very last gasp, by presenting viewers with a provocative amalgam of the American movie’s past, present and future, the film simultaneously succeeds in drawing our attention to at least a few reasons for dancing on the Golden Age’s grave, marking it out as both a key transitional moment in the history of the American crime film, and a uniquely progressive and provocative addition to the noir canon.