Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959, 94 mins, Blu-ray
Well we’re back in Noir city and this Robert Wise film, one of the last films of the ‘classic period’ noir. It’s fairly easy to tell its from the end of the ‘classic period’ (1940s/1950s) because even though I wasn’t alive back then, and not American either, its nonetheless easy to feel the 1960s bearing down upon films like Odds Against Tomorrow (see also Murder By Contract). You can feel the world changing; the post-War period is fading away and the Space Age is coming, and with it the Swinging Sixties, the Beatles, hippies, all that stuff… you can almost smell it in the wind, even in films like this; the world changing. Watching earlier noir, it can feel like something from another world, remote somehow, no matter how familiar and universal the themes and tones of the films, the fashions and social sensibilities are distant. The films can still be terribly relevant; that’s the magic of noir, they often seem the most relevant of all cinema, but there is a distance, too, sometimes comforting, sometimes frustrating, but its there. But less so in films from the close of the 1950s into the 1960s; what we see and hear is more what we know.
So here we are and yet again we are graced with the chiselled-stone countenance of the great Robert Ryan, here playing Earle Slater, an ex-con and racist, tough as nails and angry- indeed, he’s like Gods Angry Man, raging at everything. He can’t stick anything out; job, career, relationships, he always turns any success into failure and knows it but can’t change it, its who he is, what he is. Slater’s self-destructive drive is demonstrated when he cheats on his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) with a frustrated housewife from the floor above, played by Gloria Grahame, veteran of earlier noir like In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat. Lorry doesn’t deserve it and Slater knows it, but he’s angry at himself, at Lorry, at the world, and he can’t help himself, his fury just makes him wreck everything.
Could anyone play Slater as well as Ryan does here? Doubt it. The irony that Ryan would later bitterly resent the fact that he never seemed to play the leading man, the hero, in any of his seventy-plus films isn’t lost on me when watching him in films like this. He was just too good, too convincing, as horrible charming monsters. Women could see themselves falling for him, men would love to drink with him, but neither could imagine turning their back on him and still feel safe.
Slater is approached by David Burke (Ed Begley), a former policeman hounded out of the force after thirty years when he refused to cooperate with crime investigators: seems he was a bent cop who turned the other way when it suited, justifying it as living in the real world of shades of grey and mocking those with sensibilities more black and white. Bitter at being cast out Burke has a plan for a Bank robbery that is so easy and simple it cannot fail; it just needs three guys to see it through. The third man he has in mind for the job is Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) a black nightclub singer whose gambling addiction has gotten him heavily into debt and ruined his marriage.
Slater and Ingram are instantly at odds when they meet with Burke and both refuse the job, but grudgingly change their minds when they realise they have no choice: Slater, unable to get or hold a job because of his criminal past and temper, is furious at being emasculated by his working girlfriend Lorry who supports him, and sees the robbery and its promised $50,000 as a way to be a ‘proper man’ and breadwinner again. Ingram meanwhile has debts to a criminal boss who threatens (at Burkes behest, curiously) the safety of Ingram’s separated wife and young daughter if he cannot make good on his debts, so the robbery is his only way of saving his estranged family.
Burke thinks that hiring two men as desperate as he is will ensure their compliance with his scheme, and prove to be excellent allies, but doesn’t realise how the trio will prove horribly self-destructive: its all a recipe for disaster. All three are trapped with no way out but the inevitable one.
Was Robert Wise one of America’s greatest directors? His earlier noir, The Set-Up, also starring Ryan, was pretty great, and while Wise seemed to have a talent for noir he was just as good turning his directorial hand at anything- after all, his next film would be West Side Story, and besides starting his career as editor with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (notable enough, surely) his other films would include such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain… its a hell of a list. And yet I never seem to see him mentioned alongside the likes of Hitchcock, or Spielberg .
Odds Against Tomorrow features a great deal of location shooting, its a remarkable-looking film- like so many noir shot ‘on the streets’, it succeeds even if only as a visual document of the times, but I think Wise demonstrates here his particular flair with actors; characters are defined really well, horrible as some of them are, and the three leads are excellent. There’s that odd dichotomy typical of noir, when we know the guys are bad and we don’t like them at all, but we still want to see them succeed. The mechanics of the heist, the drama as it unfolds and how it falls apart, is also well realised. Its clear early in its staging that things are going wrong, but the three crooks are too desperate to realise it, or unable to see any alternative than just see it out.
The film is as much social commentary as it is a heist thriller, maybe more so- certainly today it seems more famous for its racial issues than the heist it centres upon, and is surprisingly complex- at one point Ingram rages at his wife for mixing with white people, for betraying her own race- Ingram betraying racist tendencies of his own, albeit possibly reactive against the racism he suffers: “It’s THEIR world and we’re just living in it,” Ingram berates her.
Its inevitable, really, that Ingram and Slater’s rage at the world and their respective plights turns in against each other in a literally explosive finale. Odds Against Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, some of the jazz music seems overly melodramatic at times, feeling an ill-fit in places, but on the whole its pretty powerful stuff and its sense of place and time, thanks to its location shoot, is as captivating as any noir.