Thursday, 20 February 2020

José Mojica Marins
(1936 – 2020)

 And so, we bid farewell to José Mojica Marins, aka Zé do Caixão, aka Coffin Joe, who departed this life aged 83 on February 19th in São Paulo, presumably still cursing god and mocking the pathetic vanities of the human race, or so I’d like to think.

When I began this blog back in 2009, some of the first posts here consisted of my ineffectual attempts to come to terms with the truly inexplicable series of films Marins more or less single-handedly created through the ‘60s and ‘70s, and all these years later, they still collectively lurk somewhere in the back of my brain like repressed memories of some unresolved trauma.

I will certainly never forget the evening, back in my long gone student days, when I stayed up even later than usual to catch a one-off TV airing of Marins’ ‘O Despertar da Besta’ [‘Awakening of the Beast’, 1970], which – extraordinarily, in retrospect - was screening on Channel 4 in the UK, as part of a season of ‘global weird cinema’ or somesuch. To say I was unprepared for what I saw that night would be an understatement. To say that I’ve never been quite the same since however would not be much of an exaggeration.

Presumably working with a sum equivalent to the catering budget on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’, Marins here produced a work which stands alongside it as the ne plus ultra of brain-breaking cinematic lunacy - and the fact that it is merely the icing on the cake of a fifteen year run of similarly disturbing, indigestible craziness, all produced for similarly miniscule budgets, under the nose of a repressive military dictatorship, no less - only adding to its power.

Although I’m of course aware that - in his mellower, later years at least - Marins was always keen to stress that the views and behaviour of his Zé do Caixão character, I’ve always felt that there is something distinctly unsettling about the fact the Coffin Joe enjoyed the status of a pop culture icon in Brazil – starring in a series of best-selling comic books, frequently appearing on TV, promoting ice lollies and making promotional public appearances, etc – whilst the films he was directing and starring in meanwhile played like the outpourings of a genuinely damaged mind.

Characterised by a sense of pill-popping intensity and nightmarish psychedelic disorinetation, a relentless appetite for misogynistic / misanthropic sadism, and a seemingly endless profusion of virulent, often incomprehensible, quasi-philosophical diatribes, delivered straight to camera by the director himself, these films are almost literally impossible to describe - they must be seen to be believed.

Whilst Marins’ first horror film, 1964’s ‘À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma’ [‘At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul’] to some extent retained the conventions of traditional gothic horror, his films became increasingly idiosyncratic and disjointed as his character’s popularity increased through the ‘60s. I’m unsure to what extent there is some kind of Brazillian cultural specificity at play here, but from an outsider’s POV at least, it is strange indeed to imagine Zé do Caixão’s teenage fans packing out their local picture houses with their ice cream and popcorn to enjoy an adventure with their favourite comic book character, only to be presented with something as deranged as ‘O Despertar da Besta’ or 1967’s equally indescribable ‘Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver’ [‘This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse’] .

Whilst watching these films, I’ve often reflected that, if I were the Chief of Police in São Paulo during the 1960s, and I happened to visit the cinema of an evening and saw one of these flicks, I would be inclined to instruct my people to keep a very close eye indeed on this guy’s activities. I mean, just look at this stuff for godssake - he clearly must be up to no good, one way or another!

In fairness to Marins, it could equally be argued that his unique vision of extremity within the horror genre was simply so far ahead of anything being attempted by his global contemporaries that it proved impossible to contextualise at the time. That he subscribed to the belief that horror needed to be genuinely horrific is obvious, and his Zé do Caixão alter-ego could likewise ultimately represent a pure nightmare figure – a black mirror embodiment of the worst of human egotism, espousing beliefs which for all we know may have been the direct opposite of those his creator held in real life.

Certainly, the grisly demise Coffin Joe tends to meet at the end of each of his films, and Marins’ decision to title his 2008 comeback film ‘The Embodiment of Evil’, would tend to support this theory; but if this were really the case, how could we explain the existence of a film like 1970’s ‘Finis Hominis’ (‘The End of Man’, 1970), a less extreme but no less peculiar non-horror outing which instead takes the form of a kind of satirical religious parable?

Playing multiple roles here, Marins spends much of the run-time ranting direct to camera, holding forth with messianic urgency in a manner not dissimilar to the hellfire-charred rhetoric heard in his horror films. Though his words frequently descend into the realm of absolute nonsense (insofar as can be judged from the questionable English sub-titles burned into the only extant prints, at any rate), the director – as always – seems frighteningly in earnest, seemingly trying to make some very profound metaphysical points about… something or other? Quite what though, who can possibly say.

(In attempting to make sense of Marins’ extraordinary output during 1970, it might be worth noting that Wikipedia lists both ‘O Despertar da Besta’ and ‘Finis Hominis’ as exemplars of Cinema da Boca do Lixo [‘Mouth of Garbage cinema’], a grass-roots / anti-establishment film movement which grew out of the slums of downtown São Paulo in the late 1960s, blending ‘new wave’ aesthetics and low budget guerrilla technique with shocking/exploitational pop subject matter… but, that seems like a whole other cultural rabbit-hole, perhaps best left for another day.)

Despite having seemingly thrown his battered top hat into the ring with some weird out-growth of the psychedelic counter-culture during this period however, Marins often seemed reticent to discuss the philosophical or autobiographical aspects of his works in later years, after his work was belatedly discovered by the English-speaking world in the 1990s.

Alhough a sequel to ‘Finis Hominis’ appeared in 1972, Zé do Caixão was soon back to scarifying his core audience with the increasingly bedraggled likes of ‘Estranha Hospedaria dos Prazeres’ [‘Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures’, 1976] and ‘Delírios de um Anormal’ [‘Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind’, 1978]. Even in these later, less otherworldly, films though, the genuine frisson of danger and madness – the sheer impossibility of trying to predict what might happen next – remained intact.

It may be a deathless cliché to proclaim “we will not see his like again” in obituary posts like this one, but I honestly can’t think of anyone for whom such an epitaph would seem more appropriate. In spite of the poverty and cultural isolation from which his work sprang, Marins’ understanding of, and contribution to, the aesthetics of horror cinema is vast beyond measure.

However frequently they might have done the rounds, circulating amongst fans of weird movies and outré culture, watching one of his films is still not an experience which cannot be entered into lightly. Like stumbling through the door to some forbidden netherworld you never even dreamed might exist, they will leave you feeling as if you’ve opened yourself up to possession by some slavering, unclean spirit, ready to show you things you’ve never seen before and, gods willing, will never see again.

A fond farewell then, to a true cinematic maniac.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Kaiju Notes:
Invasion of Astro-Monster
(Ishirô Honda, 1965)




King Ghidorah!

The sixth film to feature Godzilla, 1965’s ‘Kaijû Daisensô’ [‘War of the Monsters’], known to English speaking viewers as ‘Godzilla vs Monster Zero’ or, as Criterion’s box-set has it, ‘Invasion of Astro-Monster’, feels very much of a piece with its predecessor, 1964’s Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster. The two films pretty much play as if they could have been shot back-to-back, although shooting dates listed on IMDB and variations in the credited crew suggest this was not in fact the case.

Nevertheless, they both include the same line-up of monsters (minus Mothra this time around – apparently she was initially in the script, but got nixed for budgetary reasons), both feature enjoyably wacky sci-fi storylines, and both are undermined by a lacklustre, kiddie-friendly approach to the requisite kaiju action.

For its opening hour in fact, ‘Invasion of Astro-Monster’ gives little indication of its status as a kaiju movie. Instead, it plays more like one of Ishirô Honda’s straight SF movies, outlining the no nonsense interactions between humanity and a sneaky alien race who have popped up on the newly discovered Planet X, in a manner reminiscent of the director’s 1957 classic ‘The Mysterians’.

On the plus side, a lot of the Showa-era retro sci-fi stuff showcased in ‘Invasion of Astro-Monster’ is really rather delightful. Though these films are ostensibly set somewhere in the vicinity of the present day, the film begins with Akira Takarada and token caucasian Nick Adams (last seen around these parts as the exceptionally grumpy male lead in AIP’s Die Monster Die!, released the same year), manning a rocket-ship en-route to Planet X, which appears to be hanging way out there somewhere beyond Pluto. (Because hey, why not, right? I mean, the way things are progressing here in whizzo 1965, we’ll be shooting square-jawed guys out to the far end of the solar system in brightly coloured rockets before you know it! [2020 sad face. : ( ])

Soon, our astronauts are happily stomping about on the Planet’s rocky surface, and though, disappointingly, they do not encounter The Man From Planet X, they do observe these groovy sort of periscope / stairway things which pop up from under the ground, disrupting their radio contact with Earth, and hear Japanese language loudspeaker announcements informing them that they’re heading down below to meet the neighbourhood’s resident technologically superior alien race.

These guys, it transpires, have been forced underground because King Ghidorah (whom they call ‘Monster Zero’) has ravaged the surface of their world, Reign of Fire style. The Xiliens (as they actually call themselves) thus propose a deal, wherein they will ‘borrow’ Godzilla and Rodan from Earth to help resolve their three-headed space-dragon problem, and in return they’ll give us…. a cure for cancer! Pretty great deal, huh?

But wait! These guys all wear identical black leather jumpsuits, have no discernible facial expressions and wear wavo-type sunglasses at all times, concealing their eyes. As our two-fisted astronauts soon realise, they are clearly not to be trusted. But, back on Earth, the prospect of trading a couple of bad-tempered dinosaurs for the health and happiness of millions understandably proves just too tempting for the powers-that-be to resist.

Indeed, the Xiliens will even handle transport on the deal - which must have come as a relief to the the U.N. mail room staff - and the images I will probably remember most fondly from ‘Invasion of Astro-Monster’ are those of the Xiliens’ dinky little UFOs tracking down our two resident kaiju in their hideaways (Godzilla has been chilling at the bottom of Lake Myojin in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, for some reason) and transporting them through outer space suing high powered tractor beams. What fun!

This reminds me, incidentally, of an issue that always bugs me in these ‘60s Godzilla sequels – once humanity is aware of their existence, how do the Japanese government seem to keep LOSING these giant, city-flattening monsters during the interim between movies, only to be surprised when they unexpectedly pop up somewhere new?

I mean, even leaving aside the fact that you’d presume an entirely new branch of science must have developed around the necessity of tracking, studying and containing these protean beasts, you’d think that someone would at least take the time to notice a giant and infamous monster stomping his way across a renowned beauty spot and submerging himself in a lake? Instead though, we seem to begin each movie with a round of “hmm, where could Godzilla possibly have gone?”, “oh my gosh, he’s just popped up over there, in another impressively scenic location!”, “ahh, run away, send in the little tiny tanks!”, etc.

I realise that kaiju hi-jinks must have become normalised to a certain extent in this movie-world, and that earth-bound monsters like Godzilla and Rodan perhaps don’t pose quite such an existential threat as they once did, but c’mon guys - the least you could do is keep an eye on them!

The presence of Nick Adams in the cast of ‘..Astro-Monster’ - presumably flown in by Toho in recognition of the Godzilla films’ phenomenal success on the export market – also served to draw my attention to the strong sense of ‘Westernisation’ (Americanisation?) which predominates in these ‘60s kaiju movies – a trend which is particularly noticeable here, as Adams is pointedly established as “one of the guys”, hanging out and bantering (in dubbed Japanese) with his fellow astronauts. (He even offers his Asian buddies some typically forward American romantic advice, although it is he, rather than they, who ends up getting involved with a female Xilien spy – ah, the irony!)

In the original 1954 ‘Godzilla’, you’ll recall, domestic scenes retained the kind of distinctly Japanese character one would reasonably expect of a mid-century Toho or Daiei film, with characters seated at floor level, sometimes in traditional dress, and interacting with their family members in the warm yet somewhat formalised manner which continues to define many Japanese households to this day.

By the time we get to the likes of ‘..Astro-Monster’, or the same year’s truly demented ‘Frankenstein Conquers The World’ (also starring Adams) however, our central characters are predominantly young, single (or newly married) city-dwellers, who are generally depicted as living independently of their extended families, dwelling in groovily-furnished yet anonymous high rise apartments. They wear suits and twin-sets, swap snappy, casual dialogue with their co-habitants, swig highballs or martinis and sit down (at a raised table) to eat steak and chips for dinner.

For viewers familiar with the more traditional, inward-looking Japanese cinema of this era, this lack of a pronounced national identity can at times feel positively eerie, lending an uncanny, alienated aura to the stories’ cheerily two-dimensional human stories. Quite how audience responded to all this at the time, I’m unsure, but it must have been difficult for them not to have interpreted it to some extent as a statement of the filmmakers’ cultural sympathies.

In a sense, Toho could be seen to be taking the ‘borderless’ philosophy adopted by their far smaller rival Nikkatsu [see my posts here and here for more more discussion of this] to a weird new extreme within their sci-fi/monster movies, and the possible reasons for this are many and varied.

Most obviously, this ‘Westernised’ feel could be read as a nod to these films’ proven success overseas, whilst it also seems to me to reflect the grander, ‘worldwide’ and quasi-futuristic, scale of the movies’ subject matter, which often invokes the idea of international cooperation in space exploration or kaiju-fighting.

Beyond this though, I can’t help but feel that gives voice to some extent to the corresponding desire shared by many Japanese citizens in the post-war era for their country to move toward the adoption of a more homogenised [for which read: American] international capitalist culture. In other words, the very same yearning which can be identified in so many of Nikkatsu’s youth films, although it finds a less conflicted, more openly aspirational expression here.

In fact, I can easily imagine Yukio Mishima and his fellow resurgent nationalists absolutely spitting feathers about Toho’s perceived kow-towing to American cultural imperialism in these films, in the unlikely event that they ever found time to go and watch them in between kendo practice and brooding on the finer points of Bushido.

I think it is probably safe to assume that, by this stage in the Godzilla franchise, Ishirô Honda’s heart simply wasn’t in it anymore. Though ‘Invasion of Astro-Monster’ still delivers a wealth of brightly coloured fun for the kids (and the man-child retro-sci-fi enthusiasts alongside them), hitting all the beats one would reasonably expect of a Honda sci-fi movie, a feeling of tiredness and repetition seems to pervade the whole enterprise.

“This is not what I created Godzilla for”, Honda is reported to have icily stated when he saw the ludicrous / adorable ‘victory dance’ Eiji Tsuburaya and his team devised for The Big G to perform after he dispatches King Ghidorah following some half-hearted inter-planetary pushing and shoving at the film’s conclusion. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that the next entry in the franchise saw the venerable director temporarily stepping aside, allowing Toho to bring in a new broom and a distinct change of emphasis, leading, as I recall, to a considerably more satisfactory movie overall… but we’ll see how well my memory holds up on that score in a couple of weeks.

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…?

So far then, we have a quintessential hard-boiled crime yarn – exactly the kind of solid, low budget programmer which could have emerged from RKO or Warners ten or fifteen years earlier. What sets ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ apart however, justifying the film’s painfully hip opening credits, explaining Belafonte’s interest in the material and shifting the action definitively toward the milieu of the late ‘50s, is the reason why Slater and Ingram hate each other’s guts.

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.

A forerunner of the kind of battle-scarred, emasculated males who would stalk their way through cinema of the post-Vietnam era, Earl Slater is tormented by his inability to earn an honest living, and feels humiliated by the fact that his younger wife (a fairly thankless role for the great Shelley Winters) is effectively ‘keeping’ him, having just won a promotion in her uptown office job.

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.

Belafonte’s character meanwhile is equally pathetic in his own way, functioning as a case study in how the proud rebellion of an urban, black male can so easily be detourned into futile self-destruction. In a key scene, Ingram mocks his wife (Kim Hamilton) for hosting the “ofay” attendees of a local PTA meeting at her apartment, sneering at what he sees as her attempts at social climbing, and the accompanying dilution of her black identity.

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.

Interestingly, in both of these parallel character studies, it is the example provided by women that seems to offer the only glimmer of hope in a story which – no spoiler here, I’m assuming – leaves its troubled male characters unredeemed, unrewarded and stone-cold dead.

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.

All in all, this makes for a surprisingly strong line-up of progressive female role models for a ‘50s crime movie, and, though underwritten, these characters all seem designed to provide an optimistic counterpoint to what is otherwise a relentlessly bleak tale of doomed masculinity oozing toward the plug-hole.

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.

Don’t get me wrong here, I have great regard for Belafonte as an actor and human being, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he’s not quite right for the part of Ingram, despite of the fact that he provided the main impetus for actually getting this film off the ground.

(‘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.