Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Odds Against Tomorrow

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW                 A-                   
USA  (96 mi)  1959  d:  Robert Wise

Influenced by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), while also the only American film that even remotely resembles the stylistic virtuosity of John Cassavetes classic Shadows (1959), this was the first production of Harry Belafonte’s own company, HarBel Productions, making this the first film noir with a black protagonist.  Adapted from the William P. McGivern novel, a crime novelist known for his focus on characterization and the psychological effects of corruption in the big city, to capture the gritty realism they were looking for they hired blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky from Force of Evil (1948) to write the script under an assumed name of John O. Killens, where the writing credit wasn’t officially restored until 1997.  Jean-Pierre Melville credited this film as a formative influence, while James Ellroy is quoted in a July 1998 British Neon magazine article listing his ten favorite crime films (all 50’s films except his top two), James Ellroy Selects His Ten Favourite Crime Films – July '98:

This is almost the very anatomy of noir in that it deals with racism and fucked up sexuality.  It’s a film of desperate, twisted guys anxious to make one last score, robbing a smalltown bank in upstate New York.  Of course they’re subconsciously self-destructive men and they screw it all up.  It’s just the best heist-gone-wrong movie ever made.  It’s also rooting through the psychological and social issues of the time, which are significant and profound.  Robert Ryan is really fuckin’ great in this and Harry Belafonte is good too. 

Robert Wise, whose directing credits include WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), listed as #2 and #4 on AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals, may also forever be known as the guy RKO Studios brought in to recut the end of Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT ANDERSONS (1942), actually reshooting several sequences, considered one of the great hack jobs in cinema history, as the original Welles ending was destroyed and has been lost forever.  Wise’s track record with film noir, however, is pretty good, including BORN TO KILL (1947), the nastiest of his noirs, THE SET-UP (1949), a gut-wrenching boxing drama that won the Critics Prize at Cannes, and this remarkable film which is just loaded with late 50’s atmosphere, starting with a brilliant jazz score written by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet (Milt Jackson vibes, Percy Heath bass, Connie Kay drums, Bill Evans piano, Jim Hall electric guitar, Joe Wilder trumpet, and a studio orchestra), Odds Against Tomorrow (John Lewis) Highlights - YouTube (13:27), and the strikingly fresh black and white cinematography from Joseph C. Brun.  Shot on exquisite locations on Riverside Drive in Manhattan (also the soundstages of the Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx) and in the small Hudson Valley town of Hudson, New York (identified as Melton in the film) about 120 miles north, both of which are located on the banks of the Hudson River, each providing their own unique charm, from the kinetic vibrancy of big city life to the seedy squalor of the desolate industrial landscape alongside the railroad tracks, used to great effect in the haunting poetry of extended sequences before the planned heist, as each man is lost in their own thoughts waiting it out alone while quiet jazz interludes accentuate the melancholy of these isolated moments.  Jazz scores became popularized with Michel Legrand’s dreamy and melodic score to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964), where every song feels hummable, but in terms of films literally drenched in sensuous atmosphere, consider Alex North’s moody score in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), one of the earliest jazz scores in American film, wonderfully capturing the simmering heat and sweat of the story and its New Orleans location, Streetcar Named Desire - Alex North (Highlights) - YouTube (6:05), or Elmer Bernstein’s collaboration with Chico Hamilton in Alexander Mackendrick’s SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) heard here “Night Beat” (2:16), Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s music for Otto Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), one of the greatest scores of all time, where a snippet can be heard here Flirtibird (2:14), (all of which can be heard on a 5-CD recording Jazz On Film Noir (Vol 1-5) by Various Artists on Spotify), while who could ignore Louis Malle’s collaboration with Miles Davis in FRANTIC (1958), renamed ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, JEANNE MOREAU IN "LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD" (MILES DAVIS THEME) YouTube (2:15), composed in a one night session, music that so beautifully captures the aching sorrow of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and regret, where the record under the original title remains a collector’s item. 

It should probably come as no surprise that Polonsky’s screenplay is riveting throughout, where this is largely a grim character study of three down and out, self-destructive men that “lead lives of quiet desperation,” yet cover their inner anxiety with male bravado and bluster.  Opening on the windswept streets of New York where the sun is out but the overcast sky is dark and foreboding, we feel the emptiness in the lives of the characters even before they are introduced.  Robert Ryan is Earl Slater, a hard-nosed and embittered ex-con initially shot on infra red film, bleaching his skin tone, making him appear as a walking ghost as he approaches Hotel Juno on Riverside Drive.  The first words out of his mouth are racially derisive, mocking a young black girl playing out front on the sidewalk, picking her up and calling her a “Pickaninny.”  Inside the hotel, he has no time for small talk, ignoring the friendly chat from the black elevator operator, Mel Stewart in his first uncredited role before Nothing But a Man (1964), heading straight for the room of Ed Begley as Dave Burke, an ex-cop whose career was ruined when he refused to cooperate with State Crime Investigators (a pointed reference to McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting).  Both men at their end of their rope, world weary and broke, they don’t even like each other, which is not altogether uncommon among criminals, but the question is can they work together to pull off one last big score in what seems to be a well-thought out bank heist?  Slater doesn’t like it, sensing more risk than reward and backs out of the deal.  Within minutes of his departure, Harry Belafonte as compulsive gambler and nightclub singer Johnny Ingram pulls up in his white Alfa Romeo sports car, joking with the kids outside and paying them money to look after his car, and unlike Slater, actually engages in friendly conversation with the elevator operator before knocking on Burke’s door.  Despite owing heavy debts to underworld loan sharks, where he could use some quick cash, he backs out as well, as bank robbery is not his thing.  What follows afterwards is an intimate exposure to the deteriorating lives of these two men living on the edge, where Slater is living in a hotel with a hopelessly devoted girl that’s crazy about him, Shelley Winters as Lorry, but he’s growing sick of living off of her money.  His wounded male pride leads him back to Burke, who outlines his plan, targeting a small team of bank clerks working after hours every Thursday evening when the bank is full of cash preparing the next day’s factory payrolls, where they open a side door for a delivery of coffee and sandwiches (delivered by a black man), which is their way in, and why they need Ingram.  Slater is fine with the idea except for one problem, “You didn’t say nothin’ about the third man being a nigger,” which is a perfect lead-in to Ingram’s nightclub act, Odds Against Tomorrow - The Club Scene (1959) (9:16), which is strangely interrupted by the overtly gay advances of Coco (Richard Bright), one of the bodyguards of the mob loan shark Bacco (Will Kulava) who’s come to collect after Burke urged him to put the squeeze on Johnny.  Ingram’s marriage is on the rocks from his gambling habits, where it’s clear his wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) still has feelings for him, but doesn’t trust his irresponsible example in front of their young daughter Eadie (Lois Thorne), who obviously adores her father, where we actually get a glimpse inside a middle class black household, extremely rare for 50’s films, where an integrated PTA meeting is going on in her living room.  All of these social references to blacklisting, racism, integration, homosexuality, capitalism and pursuing the American Dream add a unique context to this film, giving it an underlying socio-political subtext, where the darker elements of film noir allow a certain subversive thematic content to appear in the otherwise conformist era of the 50’s.  Bacco’s strong arm tactics, threatening Ingram’s wife and child, drive him back into the waiting arms of Burke, the mastermind behind the operation, but not before a blistering argument between Ingram and his wife:

Ruth:  The child can’t have a father that lives your life. 

Johnny:  You’re tough.

Ruth:  Not tough enough to change you.

Johnny:  For what?  To hold hands with these ofay friends of yours.

Ruth:  I’m trying to make a world fit for Eadie to live in.  It’s a cinch you’re not going to do it with a deck of cards and a racing form.

Johnny:  But you are, huh?  You and your big white brothers.  Drink enough tea with ‘em and stay out of the watermelon patch and maybe our little colored girl will grow up to be Miss America, is that it?

Ruth:  I won’t listen when you talk like that.  You’d better go.

Johnny:  Why don’t you wise up, Ruth?  It’s their world and we’re just living in it. 

Not sure you hear that kind of dialogue anywhere else.  It is significant that this film was released “before” the Civil Rights era, where Slater’s views were in step with the views of a majority of whites, especially in the South where in September 1957, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus became the national symbol of racial segregation when he used National Guardsmen to block the enrollment of nine black students who had been ordered by a federal judge to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School, requiring President Eisenhower to send in U.S. Army troops to enforce the order.  It is in this poisonous racial atmosphere that the film was released, causing little stir at the box office, presumably due to the social objections.  ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is film noir’s pessimistic answer to the feelgood liberalism of Stanley Kramer’s more hopeful THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), featuring black and white actors Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts who are literally chained together by leg irons in a film wondering whether blacks and whites could set aside their differences and actually work together in the interest of survival, where they both end up cradled in each other’s arms at the end.  Slater’s unrelenting racism is shocking in its raw unfiltered expression, where Ingram hates him the minute he sees him.  Both men are given scenes of public humiliation sending them over to the dark side, as Johnny gets drunk and makes a fool of himself onstage, while Earl is goaded into a senseless bar fight with a soldier (Wayne Rogers) who’s just showing off trying to impress a girl.  The outcome in each case is awkward and unexpected, where both come off as loose cannons.  Robert Ryan is thoroughly convincing in one of his best roles, completely emasculated, associating lack of money with a lack of self respect, seething with anger and self-disgust, showing his true loner qualities when he toys with the flirtatious interest of his neighbor Helen (Gloria Graham), first rejecting and then succumbing to her sexual advances, becoming an erotic dance of seduction, where her arousal is stimulated by descriptive thoughts of how he killed a man barehanded, which he willingly whispers into her ear.  Both worked together a decade previously in Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE (1947) and their raw and smoldering descent off the edge of respectability into the darker realms of S/M territory is one of the more graphically revealing scenes of the film, especially the world weariness and self-loathing they both convey.  Ryan and Belafonte work exceedingly well together as well, where in real life Ryan was a progressive leftist speaking out for economic and racial justice as early as the 30’s and 40’s, refusing to cave in to the intimidation and smear tactics of McCarthyism, repeatedly defending the rights and civil liberties of those like Polonsky who came under attack.   But in the film, Slater is violent and miserable, lashing out at a world that refuses to accept him, growing so brutally antagonistic that his noxious racial contempt calling Johnny “boy” even draws the ire of Burke. 

Don’t beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater!  We’re all in this together, each man equal.  And we’re taking care of each other.  It’s one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever.  And I don't want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma!  You got it?

While the robbery is saved for the end, this corrosive hatred seen throughout powerfully sets the stage for what follows, where they split up to avoid being conspicuous, with Ingram arriving by bus, while Slater drives the getaway car, meeting Burke dressed as a hunter just outside Melton, becoming a tense crime procedural whose brilliance is taking its time before the main event, shifting the exteriors from a teeming city landscape to an outlying industrial wasteland, where time literally stops, each man biding their time to allow reflective, contemplative moments where the poetic images of a desolate sky over the river beautifully merge with the quiet improvisation of the music.  Slowly the characters reconnect into the normal routines of any small town, where people stop and talk to strangers on the street and don’t simply ignore one another like they do in the cities.  Still, they reappear back on the streets like the walking dead, ghosts of humanity who would prefer to remain invisible, hoping to make quick work of it before they can get away unseen.  All tormented by their own personal demons, tensions mount as things begin to unravel despite having devised an excellent plan, where it’s a good idea using a side door entrance offering little protection from the unexpected and out of sight from the main street.  Thoroughly unprepared for the worst, however, falling victim to their own ineptitude by their blatant unwillingness to trust and help one another, there are swift mood changes where they quickly turn on each other instead, and with a vengeance, as Slater continues to insult Ingram, fulfilling each bleak promise that this film makes.  Steeped in a mood of existential dread, forced to crawl out of the global catastrophe that was World War II, living under the specter of the atomic bomb and global annihilation, these men operate under a disastrous cloud of fatalistic possibilities, each one a powder keg waiting to explode, continually colliding into one another during the build-up, where racial hatred eventually ignites the fuse.  The stunning originality of the work suffers from a finale that we’ve seen before, whether it be Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), though Cagney’s Cody Jarrett intentionally chooses his fate while here it happens accidentally, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), all reflecting culture clashes along with increasing apprehensions of impending disaster during the nuclear age, while the heist-gone-wrong format does recall Kubrick’s equally taut THE KILLING (1956).  While it is a fitting conclusion, with no hero or villain in a conventional sense, it resembles the rebellious examples of gangster films of the 30’s like Cagney’s ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) or THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), while the granddaddy of them all may be Bonnie and Clyde (1967), all Depression era films where oppressive social and economic forces turn the protagonists into thieves, where robbery is an act of rebellion against that oppression.  Money is the key to power and respect in modern society, and without it, Slater and Burke feel powerless, struggling against an unyielding society that offers no second chances for aging ex-cons, where one last score can somehow reinstate their lost manhood, while Ingram is up against a nation that promises equality, but it only exists out there somewhere just out of reach.  In the end Slater and Ingram are eventually made equal in spite of themselves.  The film is listed at #16 on the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller’s Top 25 Noir Films - Eddie Muller. 

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