Odd Man Out
James Mason runs the gauntlet of Belfast’s back streets in 1940’s classic film noir
'This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland.' The insert at the beginning of Carol Reed's Odd Man Out continues... 'It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.'
Despite the film being deemed too controversial and subject to censorship before being released, James Mason called his leading role in Odd Man Out the best performance of his career. Cast as Johhny McQueen, an IRA leader in 1940s Belfast, his character is introduced not by camera, but by sound. His distinctive, velvet tones now inflected with an Irish lilt.
Described by Bill Fairchild as a man who spoke quietly in a noisy world and as having a voice that 'will be remembered by millions who never knew him', Mason is smouldering and compelling as the Odd Man Out.
Classically handsome, his character has a troubled and pre-occupied look, an air of uneasiness, an intense sadness in the eyes. ‘Your heart’s not in this job Johnny, is it?’ He is a character we immediately sympathise with and pity. The sense of doom pervades this movie from start to finish.
The film was based on a book of the same name by FL Green. He also wrote the screenplay and lived in Belfast for part of his life, dying there in 1953. The fine and flawless direction was from Carol Reed and the movie premiered in Belfast in 1947 at a cinema that then stood on Castle Lane called The Classic.
When an attempted robbery goes wrong with Johnny accidentally killing a man, becoming wounded in the process, he falls from the getaway car and his life is thrown into turmoil. Now an Irish rebel on the run, he is forced into hiding, lost and alone in desolation, emerging to encounter a curio of characters as he searches for an escape route. The streets of Belfast are cold, dark and unforgiving, relentless rain eventually giving way to snow. Life is a struggle for all those we encounter amongst the cobbled paving stones and dimly lit street lamps.
The film gives a glimpse into an old Belfast, the city providing a moody backdrop with it's trams, horse drawn carriages, shipyard, mills and terraces. Many of the exterior scenes for the movie were filmed in the west of the city, the rest being filmed in a studio set in England. The infamous Albert Clock regularly appears as the plot unfolds and the police close in. A stark reminder that time is not on Johnny’s side in his final 24 hours in this claustrophobic city.
This is the film that put the Crown Bar in Belfast on the map, a draw for tourists eager to see first hand the pub that Johnny falls into while on the run. Named ‘The Four Winds’ in the movie, it looks now much as it did then, having retained much of its original character. Contrary to popular belief, however, a reconstruction, and not the original Crown Bar, was used for the filming.
This is the setting for one of several hallucinatory scenes in this film. While locked in one of the bar's distinctive booths, drifting in and out of consciousness, Johnny knocks over his drink, the bubbles surreally transforming to reveal a simmering series of faces of those he has encountered during the day. At this point he lets out a crazed and exasperated wail, leading to mayhem in the public house.
The film is highly nostalgic as it portrays an almost Dickensian Belfast from times gone by. You imagine Oliver Twist could be found here amongst the street urchins who playfully taunt the police over their failure to find Johnny. Plucked from St Patrick's Boys Home in west Belfast by Joseph Tomelty who plays cabbie Jimmy, the children are among the few in the film with genuine Belfast accents.
Shell (FJ McCormick), the scrounging Birdman, with his hat, expressions, posture and demeanour is reminsicent of Fagan from Oliver Twist. The old decrepit house he lives in, with the winding staircase is like something out of Great Expectations. You imagine that Miss Havisham might appear at any time.
The house is a perfect setting for the unforgettable scene where Johnny's wounds are attended to while a crazed artist tries to paint him. The paintings seem to drift from the walls, like ghosts, the priest materialising in the middle. The effects in this scene bring to mind Tim Burton's cinematic style or Edvard Munch's Expressionist painting 'The Scream'.
The madness prompts unforgettable rantings and utterances from the now delirious lead actor, trying to hear what the priest has to say, as Father Tom's voice is drowned by the booming voices of the other characters arguing Johnny's fate.
Johnny refers to 'speaking with the tongues of men and of angels' and 'When I became a man I put away childish things'. Both are biblical references from Corinthians from a man near death, who now seems caught between two worlds, in some kind of purgatory. Perhaps Corinthians was chosen because Saint Paul wrote it to urge uniformity of belief, 'that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you.' A message to address conflict.
It is this and the other hallucinatory scenes that set this film apart from others of its time or genre and make it such an atmospheric and unique film noir masterpiece. The cinematography, direction, fine acting and characters add to its aesthetic. It has intelligence, depth and a dreamlike beauty. A work of art on screen.
This is an intricate and complex movie with spiritual and philosophical themes. To view the film as a movie about the IRA is to see only one of the many different levels of meaning intended. The film’s real message or heart beats beneath the surface, as the opening credits explain. The conflict here goes deeper than freedom fighters and politics, and as the dialogue shows certainly does not just centre around a cause. In fact no political group is mentioned, just ‘the organisation’.
When confronted with a man on the run, who accidentally killed someone, the characters' feelings are far from black and white, torn between wanting to help a dying man and what he represents. They are also wary of the consequences from the law if they do help him and those of his comrades if they do not.
The priest, Father Tom (WG Fay), wants mercy and the Inspector (Denis O'Dea) justice, but even their feelings are blurred at times. The outcome is that no-one really does help Johnny as he stumbles from place to place, passed from pillar to post, his life draining away.
Our main character is an idealist, yet also a criminal, torn apart with anguish at having killed someone, striving for a cause he believes in, suffering physical pain and struggling to survive. In a sense, he is a man that has sold his soul. ‘As long as he lives, he’ll belong to the organisation.’ The irony is that he is being hunted for killing someone when he sees himself as a man of peace. His inner turmoil almost seems to over-ride the physical pain he's experiencing.
On a simple level, this is a doomed love story, like that of Romeo and Juliet. The beautiful and long suffering Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) is willing to travel with her beloved Johnny irrespective of where that will lead to. It is also a film with rich symbolism. It can be viewed as having religious undertones with Johnny as Jesus, the sacrificial lamb doomed to slaughter. Other characters looking to be saved through him in various ways.
The crazed artist, Lukey (Robert Newton), painting Johnny, wanting to capture his angst ridden expression, brings to mind the great Renaissance painters who painted Jesus with his disciples and then finally on the cross.
With its human suffering the film is like a Greek Tragedy. It also has elements of Orpheus and the Underworld, with Johnny as Orpheus and Kathleen as Eurydice, both destined to go to the underworld together courtesy of the ferry crossing the river Styx or, in this case, Lagan. This is symbolic as it is a boat they miss but the destination is the same.
The film, viewed by most as a classic, received great praise, but also some criticism in its day. The government at Stormont at the time did not support the movie, and some newspapers viewed it as overtly Republican for its sympathy towards our law breaking protagonist. For the most part it received great critical acclaim and picked up numerous awards, including a BAFTA for Best British Film of 1948. Perhaps the best film ever set in the city, it has stood the test of time.
Odd Man Out is a soul searching thriller where love and loyalty do battle with cowardice and betrayal, in the labyrinth of a dying man’s journey to the grave. It is a tragic and timeless story about life gone wrong. It's not just Johnny who misses the boat, it seems that for most of the characters, their ship has sailed. Almost as if the city has swallowed their souls, frozen their dreams and taken them prisoner. As the clock strikes a melancholy midnight, we are left to ponder… Are we all doomed?
‘He’s dying, there’s wonderful thoughts in his eyes … I see in him what I see in all of us … Doom.’