Back in April we screened Caught (1948) – James Mason’s first role in Hollywood. This month (Oct 4), in Odd Man Out (1947), we see why Mason was such a catch for the American studios, after being directed by Carol Reed in a film that Paul Dehn of The Sunday Chronicle called “the best film I have ever seen” (2nd Feb, 1947) and of which James Agee wrote, ‘If the world should end tomorrow, this film would furnish one of the more appropriate epitaphs: a sad, magnificent summing-up of a night city.’ (The Nation) In the Daily Express, Paul Holt called Odd Man Out “the best film that has ever been made in Britain and clearly in the company of the best half-dozen in the world” (21st Jan, 1947).
An IRA gunman, badly wounded during a robbery, is hindered and helped by a variety of strangers in his attempts to escape the authorities in Belfast. What makes this tale rise above the ordinary is that, by never referring to either Belfast or the IRA, the flight of Johnny McQueen (Mason) acquires universality as he staggers from street to air-raid shelter, from temporary respite in a house, to a horse-drawn cab, to a junkyard and eventually to a meeting with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), at the docks where a getaway boat awaits.
When a husband in an early scene points out that Johnny is the chief of the “Organisation” (the IRA is never mentioned remember), his English wife responds : ‘It’s what he is now that I’m thinking about.’ What he is now is a wounded man, a dying man and charity demands that we remember this and forget everything else. The end of the film is a kind of diagram of a world without charity – of the death of charity: ‘He belongs to the law now,’ the inspector says of Johnny, as if the law were a god or an unforgiving country, a place of shadows where faces are mostly turned away. It is a significant message for our own age, mired as we are in refugee crises and nationalist slogans.
What is more, Odd Man Out is shaped like a Greek tragedy, in which events develop from a single, early mistake and the role of fate finds symbolic echoes in Johnny breaking his shoelace at the opening, and Shell breaking his at the end; in recurring references to time and the Albert clock; in the steps where killings repeatedly take place; in the ‘Harland and Wolff’ shipyard locations which open and close the film.
Carol Reed (1906-76), the illegitimate son of Victorian actor-manager and theatrical impressario Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (and whose first love was Daphne du Maurier), had been in the Army Kinematograph Service during the war, directing David Niven in the propaganda film The Way Ahead (1944). He soon became known for his attention to detail and, for Odd Mon Out, worked long and hard on the script with F.L.Green, the author of the book on which it was based. They also called on the help of R.C.Sheriff (scriptwriter on many James Whale films such as Journey’s End, 1930; The Invisible Man, 1933; and The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935). In the post-war climate Reed (seen at left here, seated second from left on the set of Odd Man Out) insisted on the kind of realism that can only be obtained from location shooting in city streets. He was also determined that supporting players should be Irish actors rather than Brits faking ‘Oirish’ accents and so turned to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he had the pick of the crop.
F.J McCormick (right with William Hartnell foreground) was engaged to play “Shell”, Johnny’s dipsomaniac underworld guide (who tries to ‘sell’ Johnny to turn a profit, in a scene-stealing performance that one critic likened to “grand larceny”). Although he appeared in only 3 films, McCormick was then considered the greatest and most versatile Irish actor of his generation, having a long associated with Sean O’Casey and created on stage the roles of Joxer in Juno and the Paycock and Fluther Good in The Plough and the Stars. In addition Denis O’Dea was cast to play the police inspector (right in picture below). A leading member of the Abbey troop, O’Dea’s talent for playing upright citizens had already led to notable roles in John Ford films like The Informer (1935) and The Plough and the Stars (1936). He would go on to have a long film career as a character actor in such movies as Fallen Idol (Reed, 1948), Under Capricorn (Hitchcock, 1949), Treasure Island (1950), The Sea Devils (Walsh, 1953) and (who could forget) Darby O’Gill and the Little People (Stephens, 1959). Other notables from the Abbey included Dan O’Herlihy (below) and Cyril Cusack (below left), who Reed spotted to play Nolan and Pat respectively.
Fine supporting performances were also provided by Robert Newton as Lukey, a frenetic, jittery artist (who sees faces in the fire and whose weird ecstasy seems to drain Johnny’s slim reserves of strength) and William Hartnell as the wary publican, “Fencie”. Then there are the sisters “Rosie” and “Maudie” (Fay Compton and Beryl Measor), women who cannot decide if they are hostages or cutthroats; and finally Reed appointed W.G. Fay (1872 – 1947), co-founder of the Abbey Theatre (with brother Frank) to play Father Tom in a display of humanity, grace and humour.
Reed was shrewd enough to realize, however, the Abbey could not supply him with a big enough actor to draw an
international audience. The lead was first offered to Stewart Granger, a top box-office draw of the period, but when (for whatever reason) it was turned down Mason, who was then at a peak of popularity – and notoriety – saw it as a chance to break away from playing cads and handsome rogues with riding crops (The Man in Grey,1943; Fanny by Gaslight, The Wicked Lady, both 1945). Mason felt his range was greater these puerile parts allowed, and had caused a row by publishing an article criticising the British Film Industry, indulging in anecdotal, behind-the-scenes evidence of its lack of glamour. As a result the Producers Association threatened ‘definite action’ if he should ever write such an article again. Despite the press referring to this as the “Mason Incident”, he was unrepentant and was planning an escape to Hollywood when Reed offered him the part of Johnny in Odd Man Out.
The realism that Reed was after in location shooting was complimented by the film noir, expressionistic use of shadows, special effects and camera angles to create psychological tension. An extraordinary, brightly lit shot of Johnny recalling the passage from 1 Corinthians (‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity . . .’) flaunts this stylistic bravado: the camera angle is so low that we see a good piece of the ceiling, Mason’s face is thus flattened as in a fresco, his left arm bandaged in a sling and his right arm raised in a kind of crooked salute. This forces contemplation of how we need charity rather than violence or hatred or anger or protest or even faith – interpretations made possible by the delicate cinematography of Robert Krasker, who had previously worked on Olivier’s Henry V and David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Reed snapped up Krasker when he was dismissed by Lean after they clashed while shooting the marsh scenes in Great Expectations. They formed a good partnership and work together again on The Third Man.
The winter of 1946-47 was one of the worst in British memory: streets in London, Portsmouth, Coventry, Bristol and a dozen other cities were still Blitz-pitted, and whole blocks remained broken, frozen, and abandoned. Food was still rationed in what was already being called “the Age of Austerity” and the nation still ached dully with the too-intimate recollection of thousands of dead and missing. Despondency and poverty was rife and to a populace lacking good cheer, Odd Man Out provided an allegory based on the unthinkable proposition that an IRA man might as easily be the vessel of godliness as the next person.
When the film appeared, some critics grumbled that the tangled politics of Republicanism, the Easter Rising, and the long internal exile of the IRA, were all blithely ignored by Odd Man Out. And yet even Robert Newton’s artist character Lukey (right), in the throes of his own attempt to escape from reality, understands why he wants to paint Johnny’s portrait: “What I see in him,” says Lukey, “is the truth about us all.”