Sunday, June 12, 2011

Odd Man Out

As much as I enjoy the film noir genre, I have to admit that I am not an expert in it.  I've only seen eight of the top ten IMDb top noir titles, and eleven of the top twenty, feerchrissakes!  And I've only reviewed two!  I could pretend that it's not my fault that this genre that I profess to love has gone largely unstudied by me, that this is a genre whose time has mostly passed, but I'm a classy guy and can admit that my research on this subject matter is not exhaustive.  One of my all-time favorites, though, is The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed --- and that's what led me to Odd Man Out.

The film begins with a preface that explains that, though the film takes place in a time of political unrest, this is the tale of innocents caught in the mix between the law and the outlaws.  That's kind of a downer to start the movie, eh?  An organization --- which is in no way supposed to resemble the IRA, except it is in Ireland, is against the government, and is absolutely an IRA analogue --- is planning to rob a mill to fund their further exploits against the government.  The leader of the organization is Johnny McQueen, (James Mason), who spent a long stretch in jail before escaping a few months back; since then, he's kept a low profile in a woman's house, and this is his first gig back in the action.  There is some question about whether Johnny is up to a strenuous robbery, but he insists on leading the heist.  Bad idea.  He gets stressed out, starts daydreaming, and ends up getting shot --- and shooting a civilian --- before escaping.  He doesn't get away scot-free (interesting side note: that phrase is Scandinavian.  Who knew?), though.  His buddies, in their haste to escape a murder/robbery scene, fail to secure Johnny in the car, and he falls out.  This means that Johnny has to find his own shelter, while wounded, in a town that doesn't want to offend either the Irish radicals or the British government; Johnny is their leader, though, which means that his organization can't afford to let him get caught.

If you are not familiar with James Mason, that's okay.  Until I saw this movie, neither was I.  It turns out, the man was a pretty popular actor at the time, and a handsome man, too boot.
He's like Gregory Peck, only capable of smiling.
Mason is the lead actor in the film, even if his character is not so much a protagonist as a character that causes others to act.  Mason is pretty good, but his character doesn't have a whole lot of dynamism.  He is certainly sympathetic, but his appearance is a burden on any character that encounters him; Mason deserves credit for making such a sluggish character appealing.  Sure, he has the advantage of having "the voice of god," according to most Eddie Izzard sketches, but I think he's a generally appealing leading man.
Limeys + drag = James Mason jokes?
It was also refreshing to see a wounded character actually act like he's wounded from a gunshot.  The rest of the cast is far less impressive than Mason, even if he's such a low-key main character.  Kathleen Ryan played Mason's ever-loving and absolutely crazy not-quite girlfriend; this may have been an acceptable role for women before 1950, but her character just seems batshit crazy now.  Robert Beatty was decent enough as the only member of the IRA analogue to seek Johnny out, but the other IRA-ish members were unimpressive.  I did enjoy Maureen Delaney's work as the sleazy gambling house owner; it's rare to see a middle-aged woman showing cunning in a 1940s movie.  Other actors you might recognize include cameos from Eddie Byrne (Star Wars), Wilfrid Brambell (Paul's grandad in A Hard Day's Night), and a few others who frequently had bit parts in British films of the period.  William Hartnell (the original Doctor Who), Robert Newton, and F.J. McCormick are fine in their supporting roles --- they are some of the strangers that Johnny puts in a hard spot, just by encountering them --- but nobody was fantastic.  I should point out that the Irish accents are occasionally pretty thick in this film; I've been told that they aren't authentic Northern Irish accents, but I don't have enough information to judge them.

The real star of the film is the direction from Carol Reed.  Reed, along with his cinematographer Robert Krasker, made a beautiful movie.  While the acting wasn't terribly impressive --- which isn't a surprise, given the fact that the main character is stumbling around, half-conscious, for most of the movie --- the story is still interesting.  That credit goes to the director.  What I liked more than the storytelling were the visuals.  Many scenes were gorgeously framed, adding to the growing dread and anxiety of the film's tone.
Pop quiz: is something good going to happen here?
There were a couple of cool camera tricks that were rarely used in 1940s British cinema that were used well here, including a morphing transition from a dream to reality and some pretty cool camera shots to imply disorientation.  This isn't the work of a master director (yet), but there is a lot of artistic promise shown in this movie.

As impressive as the direction and cinematography are, the film doesn't quite live up to them.  The main problem lies in the script; by focusing on how Johnny made others react --- I have never watched a film where so many characters opted to not help a wounded man --- it became more of a social commentary than a story.  I also didn't follow the logic of the primary supporting characters.  Robert Beatty's character had a plan to distract the police, but it was more than a little sketchy.  As for Johnny's crazy almost-girlfriend, she discussed the option of a murder-suicide with a priest.  There aren't many people who will listen to that and agree that it's the best solution, but a priest is probably the worst choice.  I'm also confused as to why the IRA ran away from the police who were checking random civilian IDs on the street; am I supposed to believe that a group of militant activists don't have any fake IDs --- especially when they didn't require photographs?  What deliberate lawbreaker doesn't have a fake ID?  Turning around and walking away from an inquiring policeman isn't a Plan B.  It's stupid.  It's not terribly annoying, though, just dumb.  The opening preface that tells the audience what to think was annoying; I'm sure it was tacked on by the movie studio to avoid any IRA-related hostilities/sympathies, but the audience should be able to figure that out on their own.

Even with all those problems, I thought this movie was pretty decent.  Even playing a wounded man, James Mason was appealing and I always enjoy a visually interesting film.  This could have been a fantastic movie, given the director and lead actor, but the script was lacking.  Still, it's worth a look for any fans of the genre that are curious what an Irish noir might look like.

While researching James Mason, I stumbled across this ad campaign for Thunderbird wine.  That's right, the bum wine.  Yes, the stuff that tastes and smells like gasoline.  How did a bum wine get a classy guy like James Mason to be its public face?  Hint: he loves the smell and taste of gasoline.

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