Thursday, April 02, 2015

Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)

Belatedly for St. Patricks' and just in time for Good Friday!

(WARNING: story and plot twists of both The Third Man and Odd Man Out discussed in detail!)

Shuffling to Golgotha

Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (from the novel by F.L. Green) was released two years before his best-known work (The Third Man, 1949) and often suffers in viewers' minds when compared with the latter. Admittedly some elements in Third I find superior: Anton Karas' zither score, which sets a bouncy jaunty tone (sometimes unsettlingly so); Graham Greene's screenplay, which wields the Catholic elements with a lighter, more satiric edge; and the city of Vienna itself, its torn walls and rubbled streets prompting Reed's camera to view the world through a darker, more sharply skewed glass

That said there are powerful images from the earlier that Reed couldn't resist re-using: man running down cobbled streets, throwing shadows on the walls behind; man standing at the end of a long hallway, limbs stretched from corner to corner in crucified pose; police in relentless pursuit, their flashlights blinking like coded signals from another world. 

A crucial distinction: Vienna's beautiful buildings lie half in ruins thanks to the Second World War; the squalid and abandoned structures found in Odd's urban setting (Belfast, here named a 'city in Northern Ireland') have no such excuse--only The Troubles, the term for Ireland's long struggle for independence, proving the point that a civil war can be as if not more destructive than a world war.

Then there's Vienna's postwar weather, not warm but a model of stability compared to Belfast's. During the course of a single day the film's climate transforms from chilly (if dry) to muddy rain to snow; you might call the shift in atmosphere Reed's metaphor for the film's metaphysics. The story begins in clear-eyed neorealist mode, with a bank robbery staged in broad daylight; the second act, devoted to the resulting manhunt, is handicapped by pouring rain, the quarry poised at any moment to sink into thick concealing mud. By third act the protagonist's fate (as in all great noirs) is sealed, and the heavens cast over the city the softest of blankets, lending the film the serenity of a freshly forgiven soul.

Possibly the most significant difference between Odd and Third is the dynamic between Third's central characters, Holly Martins and Harry Lime. Holly is the ostensible protagonist, the eyes through which we view much of Vienna; he's also funny in a hapless way, the film's most sympathetic character. If he lacks anything it's amplitude, size, any trace of the larger-than-life qualities one might look for in a hero. 

Harry has those qualities, if corrupted. He's the charismatic older brother Holly worships, who gets the girl and knows all the tricks, not to mention all the right people. Reptilian greed is his crippling flaw, severely limiting any sympathy we might have for him, relegating him to the role of 'charming rogue' (okay, 'memorably charming rogue'--one suspects that Welles' schtick is responsible for much of the film's commercial success).

Rounding out this dynamic is the constant tendency to confuse one for the other ("We're both in it, Harry." "Holly." "I'm so sorry." "You might get the name right."); to share common traits, down to a fondness for the same girl ("I'd make comic faces and stand on my head and grin at you between my legs, and tell all sorts of jokes...I wouldn't stand a chance, would I?"). If Harry is drawn to Holly--I mean Holly to Harry (say the names fast enough and you understand the girl's confusion)--it may be because Harry is the smarter, faster, better-looking version. And if Harry seems drawn to Holly--why approach him at all, offer involvement in his smuggling ring?--that may be because even the smartest and best-looking original has need for or at least feels the need for his shadow. For companionship's sake, if little else.

Odd combines the two figures in Johnny McQueen (James Mason): sensitive soul (like Holly) waking to the possibility of nonviolent change;  unwitting object of affection (like Harry) of the lovely Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan); putative leader (again like Harry) of The Group (the film's pseudonym for the IRA) in the city. 

Johnny's not perfect, or not perfectly wrought. The flaw that undoes him is more psychological (a bad case of agoraphobia) than personal (though it might be argued his truer flaw is hubris, in that he thinks himself perfectly capable of leading a bank robbery even after a five-year stay in prison); as matters go horribly wrong  Johnny is wounded, grows weaker and more passive, intermittently drops out of the film entirely.  

Johnny is Odd's Christ figure; unlike Harry who parodies Christ (The Third Man begins with Harry dead, to be later resurrected), Johnny is a more straightforward symbol, from the wound on his side (actually more like the shoulder), to the many instances when he's carried, weak from loss of blood, across city streets

Johnny's passivity might actually be less a mistake than an opportunity for others to come to fore: avaricious yet eloquent Shell (F.J. McCormick), who owns dozens of birds and is willing to turn informant to support them; eccentric artist Luke (Robert Newton), forever seeking the perfect pair of eyes for his Christ portrait; former medical student Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones); barkeeper Fencie (William Hartnell); an oddly sympathetic police Inspector (Denis O'Dea); kindly yet impotent Father Tom (W.G. Fay). Johnny fades into the background and in his place emerge folk who see Johnny not for what he is--man dying of a bullet wound--but for what he means to them (money; artistic fulfillment; a chance to practice medicine; potential trouble; prey; lost sheep). He's the prism, so to speak, through which the Irish are sharply refracted.

I mentioned Third's humor; Odd has its own less obvious comedy, as it picks apart the Irish persona in hilarious and often grotesque detail. Everyone--from IRA soldier to homeless vagrant to monomaniacal artist--is gifted with their own eloquence, their own style of rationalizing their actions, casting themselves as either victim or hero of their own saga; everyone talks around instead of to Johnny, professing concern for the man while pursing their own agenda (turn him in, turn him loose, turn him into cash); everyone shares an insatiable thirst for the country's wonderfully dark almost chocolatey stout and even more magical whiskey (which monks in the Middle Ages called the "water of life"). 

The film also, albeit more indirectly, explores Roman Catholicism. Everyone pays lip service to the faith, with Father Tom a respected figure--but what is faith, ultimately? Certainly most fail the basic behavior test: when Johnny falls into their hands they either cautiously show him the door or cunningly patch him up in the hope of greater reward (I don't mean heaven-sent). If the Church and all its members hewed to the ideal Johnny would have either been patched up and escaped or brought to justice long ago; as is, he wanders the streets of Belfast as if through Golgotha, only here even the Romans have lost track and are searching for him as well. 

Wouldn't confine indictment to the Irish, either. We Filipinos resemble the Irish in many ways: in their love of talk and drink, in their religious piety, in the way they either betray each other (a la Judas), or give their life for each other (a la Christ). Hardly anyone thinks to choose a middle road; it's the drama of the moment that drives them.

Easy to say Green's (Holly's?) script is inferior to Greene's (Harry's? Again the sense of doubling!); the latter seems more sophisticated, more confident, easily more entertaining (The Third Man was a big commercial success, and is still a popular classic today). Yet Greene himself didn't think highly of the picture, calling it an 'entertainment' and arguing against the famous last shot, saying the film is 'too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending.' Unsaid but possible to assume: that his idea of a weightier affair was his more ambitious, more critically well-regarded novel The Power and the Glory, about a priest's solo odyssey across anti-clerical outline, tone and spirit closer cousin to Odd Man Out than Greene's box-office success.  

Possibly what Johnny's journey lacks in stylish amusement it more than makes up for in intensity; possibly not all of Odd's masochism can be read as pious posturing--some of it can be taken straight, no chaser, and is actually quite moving. As perverse a nihilist as Roman Polanski has professed admiration for Reed's collaboration with Green, even over Reed's better-known collaboration with Harry--with Greene. The film casts a long shadow over Polanski's work, and the image of Johnny McQueen's lone figure wandering the streets of Belfast can be recognized in any number of his films, from Carol in Repulsion to Dr. Richard Walker in Frantic to (most recognizably) Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist.  

One bullshit artist recognizing the gold in a fellow's bullshit art, you can't ask for a better endorsement. 

As for the finale: of all the folk that surround Johnny only Kathleen truly loves him, and by film's end only Kathleen is left clutching his bloodied form. Only...she imposes her ideal of love on Johnny too, an ideal that involves the two of them together, free of law enforcement, the IRA, everyone else. It's a love that ultimately dooms him, as the police close in with their winking torches--or frees him, depending on how you want to look at his imminent, ultimate departure

Father Tom arrives late, as always. He turns away, puts his arm round the one remaining lost soul (Shell)--the other two having proven too strong and too wild for him to redeem--and gently but firmly pulls said soul back into the (sheltering, oppressive) shadow of the Catholic Church.

First published in Businessworld, 3.26.15


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