“This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they became unexpectedly involved.”
So reads the disclaimer offered at the beginning of Odd Man Out, Carol Reed's powerful drama about a man's journey through what Saint John of the Cross called, “a dark night of the soul.” It asks audiences of the era to set aside their feelings about the rightness or wrongness of the two sides and to simply consider the struggles of the individual human beings involved. Initially, this seems like a slightly timid move – a cinematic attempt to take advantage of hot-button political subjects without actually being forced to make a political statement. As the film proceeds, you begin to recognize Reed's wisdom: this story is bigger than any political ideology (and arguably, bigger than any religious theology).
James Mason (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) plays Johnny McQueen, the leader of a group belonging to “The Organization” (quite obviously based on the IRA, but never called such for one reason or another). Johnny recently escaped from prison, and has been hiding out for the past six months with his lover Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan, Christopher Columbus), but is now tasked with raising money for The Organization by robbing a local mill. Alas, the robbery doesn't quite go as planned: Johnny is confronted by an armed cashier, and a shootout ensues. The cashier is killed, while Johnny is shot in the arm. Johnny's men scramble away in the getaway car, leaving their wounded leader behind.
The remainder of the film details Johnny's journey through the streets of Belfast, as he conducts a seemingly futile search for physical and spiritual salvation. There are multiple reasons people turn him away. Johnny is a wanted criminal, and anyone caught aiding him could suffer serious consequences. Additionally, he's involved with a group that many people object to, and some feel that helping him would be helping his cause. Some people Johnny encounters wish to take advantage of him during his dying moments. An artist (a terrific Robert Newton, Treasure Island) wishes to paint him as a saint, certain that the image of Johnny on the verge of death will be artistically powerful (never mind the fact that he could be saving a dying's man life instead of painting it). Others hope to be able to gain some sort of financial reward by turning him in. Through the fog of pain and hallucination, Johnny begins to understand what truly matters. A pity his understanding is coming too late.
James Mason is an actor I've long admired, but his work as Johnny may well be the finest performance I've ever seen from him. He doesn't say much, but he uses his face to capture the character's anguish and exhaustion. Mason refuses to let viewers turn away from Johnny's tormented humanity, and it hurts to watch him suffer while countless people find ways to avoid helping him. Indeed, his barely-conscious shuffling is so convincing that you feel your own eyelids growing heavy during the film's final act. The performance – aided by a masterful, often heart-wrenching score from William Alwyn - perfectly captures a man straddling the line between this world and the next, and it's hard to imagine any other actor pulling it off so convincingly.
The other key performance comes from Kathleen Ryan, whose role is limited but essential to the movie's purpose and power. She knows that the love of her life is out there somewhere, bleeding and freezing while working his way towards one form of death or another. She makes plans to find him and run away with him, but she seems to know that a happy ending isn't in the cards. Again, it's a performance that mostly speaks through mournful facial expressions.
One of the film's most powerful moments comes late in the proceedings, as Johnny hallucinates a vision of the genial Father Tom (W.G. Fay, Oliver Twist). After trying and failing to find clarity in his vision, Johnny blurts out a passage from I Corinthians he learned as a child. The passage concludes with one of the most striking lines in the Bible: “Though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and though I have all faiths so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity... I am nothing.” Beautiful words, but what good are they if self-professed Christians do not heed them? If Johnny is to find any form of spiritual salvation, he will not find it in the church... nor will he find it, as Charlie in Mean Streets claims, “in the streets.” Those places – and the men that run them – lack charity.
Reed will forever be known as, “the director of The Third Man,” and that's understandable. The Third Man is one of the greatest movies of its era – or any era, for that matter. Still, Odd Man Out is arguably just as strong (and there are a handful of noted critics and filmmakers who would argue that this F. L. Greene adaptation eclipses that Graham Greene adaptation), benefiting immensely from Reed's ability to capture the dark soul of a city. I've seen many movies set in Northern Ireland, but I've never seen it look the way it does here. The film's crime plot and shadow-filled look suggests that it's some form of noir, but the ferociously powerful ending feels too romantic for that genre. How many noir movies can be described as testaments to the transcendent power of love? I'm not sure what Odd Man Out is, but I know it's a masterpiece.
Odd Man Out
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 1947