Directed by Carol Reed
Written by R.C. Sherriff, based upon the novel of the same name by F.L. Green
Starring James Mason, Kathleen Ryan, Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack
Believe it or not, it’s not always easy watching the movies in this series. No, I don’t mean in terms of availability, like I’m out here picking movies that are basically unavailable and so it’s hard to watch them. As if there is any sense to that.
No, I mean they’re difficult to watch in terms of hearing a film defined as ‘classic’, only to learn it actually doesn’t live up to the hype. That instead of being rapt by this supposed-classic, I’m bored silly and constantly looking at your phone and counting the minutes until it’s over. And at the end, you wonder if you just missed something about the film and it’s truly a classic, or if everybody else simply drank the Kool-Aid and you’re the only sane one left.
And this is not an instance where we’re talking about a reaction to a specific type of classic, like Pink Flamingos, which is classic in some circles, or Birth of a Nation, which is classic for expanding the artform, but is also largely racist. No, I’m talking about films that are considered to be in the canon of accepted classic films. Where some are certainly better than others, in the way some hall of famers are better than others, but still, are the best of the best.
So back to my main point, which is it’s hard s confronting one of those classic films and being left cold or bored by it, and then left to wondering if maybe the problem isn’t the film, but is me.
Self-doubt – that’s what makes this all difficult.
And here is the difficulty of Odd Man Out – it might be a classic, but it did nothing for me. Of the Carol Reed oeuvre I’ve seen – Oliver!, The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, and The Agony and The Ecstasy – Odd Man Out is the least of them, by a country mile. By two country miles. And even as it’s possible I’m wrong – after all, the movie was the Best British Picture at the BAFTAs – I don’t think I actually missed anything.
What’s It About?
Johnny (James Mason) is a prison escapee, planning a robbery to fund an IRA plot – the Irish Republican Party is never explicitly mentioned in the movie, but we can read between the lines and know what it is. Because Johnny’s been in prison, and hiding out so long, some worry that Johnny’s gone soft, and maybe he’s not the right man for this job. Turns out the worries were right: Johnny blanks during the getaway, a man is killed, and he has to go on the run. After that, it’s only a matter of time before the allure of the reward overcomes the urge to protect him.
Director Carol Reed made The Third Man, a film many people consider to be the greatest British film of all time – the BFI in 1999 rated it their #1. That film is stylish, playful, and above all memorable. In many ways it’s the perfect companion piece to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Sure, they don’t share any plot similarities, and their sensibilities are decidedly different, but they do show the lengths to which you can make a certain sort of moody, serious, yet light-hearted style work for projects of different types.
And because we know Reed was capable of making one truly great film, it’s so much more disappointing when he makes a decidedly dull film. Of his three big ones from the earlier era – The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, and Odd Man Out – Odd Man Out is easily the least of the three and hardly feels as if it were directed by the same man. It lacks the urgency and complexity of The Fallen Idol, and lacks all the wit and charm of The Third Man. Where the other two films have life, this one is too long, non-descript, and technically lesser. It lacks tension.
Even so, it was good to see this film for this series, given its similarity to an earlier film here, John Ford’s The Informer. Just as in that story, this one is driven a bit by a feeling of being up against the clock, and just as in that story, the plot revolves around the search for a man. Where they are different, is one is about the informer, the other is about the informed upon. Plus, they both deal with the IRA.
But where The Informer seems to at least have some forward momentum, and a pretty great performance from Victor McLaglen at the center of it – it’s one of the great sweaty film performances – Odd Man Out has a James Mason performance with him speaking an Irish accent with his perfect English diction. Where the McLaglen performance felt real and lived in, James Mason feels mannered and technically good, but not realistic. His accent –his whole performance, if we’re honest – just lacks a certain sludginess, and lack of refinement that you’d expect from men involved in this line of work. It just feels untruthful.
But a lack of truth to Mason’s character is hardly the worst that can be said about him, because the worst is that he actually feels more like a ‘thing’ than a character. A cipher, as it were. A symbol. And because he’s a symbol, and so unimportant as a character, it’s no shock that when he eventually disappears from the movie for a stretch, the film doesn’t miss him at all.
At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate problem with the film, and which dooms it – it’s not about a ‘story’ so much as about ‘symbols’ and ‘importance’. The characters aren’t characters and don’t exist in the world. They are theoretical ideas that exist only in the movie. To me, that makes the movie ultimately unsuccessful.
Cinematographer Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his work on The Third Man, in which he used, and photographed, post-war Vienna to great effect. In a big way, Krasker’s work there is as important to cinema as Gregg Toland’s work is to Citizen Kane, and is why I mentioned both films earlier. Both films pushed forward the ways we think a film can be shot, both added intense mood to their films, and both showed true artistry.
It’s a shame, then, that Krasker’s work here seems fairly non-descript and entirely unexceptional.
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 And entirely repellant in others
 Well, difficult in a first-world problems sort of way. After all, we’re talking about watching movies, not curing cancer.