Saturday, May 24, 2014

Movie Review: Odds Against Tomorrow

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley

(Note: This is my entry in the Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) is a man with little to offer the world. An ex-con twice over, middle-aged and penniless, Slater is staring down the barrel of a merciless future and he knows it. All he really has is the unconditional love of Lorry (Shelley Winters), but that love comes attached with small gifts of money that Slater hates himself for using. He needs to get some kind of score or his chance for happiness will be gone forever. So when crooked ex-cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley) comes to him with a too-good-to-be-true plan for a heist, Slater snatches it up with both hands. There's a snag, though. Burke's plan depends on the cooperation of smooth-talking musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to play a delivery boy. Thing is, Ingram's black and Slater is a racist. Even with everything at stake, Slater can scarcely bear to share the same room with Ingram, let alone cooperate on a crime with him. For his part, Ingram loathes Slater completely but his own massive gambling debts force him to go along. Dave has his hands full trying to keep this shoddy little trio together. As the clock ticks down to their one chance for fortune and freedom, these three men will have to ask themselves if they really have what it takes to beat the odds.

Odds Against Tomorrow is film noir's answer to The Defiant Ones. When asked the question, "Can a bitter white racist and a proud black man put aside their differences in the interests of survival," the answer here is simply, "No." Hate is enough to overpower all other instincts. 

The canny trick of Odds Against Tomorrow is the way it eases into that question. It doesn't immediately announce itself as a social problem movie or even as a caper flick. Instead, it spends most of its running time slowly introducing us to our three main characters: the old, blindly optimistic Burke, the desperate Slater, and the troubled young Ingram. We get insight into the fears that push them forward. Burke took a fall as a crooked cop and wants to get a little of his own back before it's too late. Slater is violent and miserable, lashing out at a world that doesn't want him. Ingram is addicted to gambling and weighed down by responsibility for his ex-wife and daughter. By the time the movie gets around to the actual heist, we're fully aware that hatred isn't just a social disease or an impediment to common sense. For men like these, hate and anger are tools for survival. One way or another, they've become life's losers and the only way they can put one foot in front of the other is by finding something else to blame for their problems.

The performances in Odds Against Tomorrow are uniformly excellent, from the trio of inexperienced thieves to the unhappy women that love them, but what really knocked me out in Odds Against Tomorrow was the visual style. There was an unwritten rule in Hollywood for decades that movies about social issues had to be in a gritty, unadorned black-and-white in order to underline the seriousness of the story. Director Robert Wise takes that rule and slices right through it, avoiding both the boring, TV-episode look of other '50s kitchen sink dramas, and the gorgeous, slick camerawork of the classic film noir. 

Instead, Wise's compositions borrow the best from both styles, alternating between slanted shadows and corner and disorienting, overexposed location shots. This technique creates a bleak, chilly landscape with blindingly white flashes of light along the horizon. Far from looking seductive or glamorous, the city in Odds Against Tomorrow looks almost as if it's gone through some kind of nuclear winter. Wise even adds in a few infra-red shots here and there, so Ryan at times is walking under a black sky with distorted white clouds. The effect is desolate and eerily beautiful. Just as Ryan and Begley's middle-aged thugs are fighting against the realization that life holds no more chances for them, the movie itself looks like the last document of a world slowly being burned out of existence.

It is a hard, perilous business, trying to steer the ship of Robert Wise Appreciation through the dark waters of film criticism. No matter which direction you go, you hit sharp rocks.  Turn the conversation to Citizen Kane and Wise's editing career and you run smack into the film fans who will forever hate Wise as the scissors-wielding mediocrity who butchered The Magnificent Ambersons. Turn the conversation over to Wise's directing success and you inevitably run up against someone grinding their axe against The Sound of Music or West Side Story. Try to find some calmer waters with the auteurists and you find a general sense of frustration at the slippery Wise, a man who went from beguiling fantasy-horror flicks all the way to gargantuan Hollywood crowd-pleasers without much hint of personal connection to his stories. Really, the only safe place for Robert Wise love is with the film noir fans, who are quite happy to hold up Born to Kill, The Set-Up, and Odds Against Tomorrow with the best that film noir has to offer.

I think one of the reasons Wise never quite achieves critical darling status is that he was one of the most chameleon-like of directors, subsuming himself to the demands of his story. Given a classic haunted house tale like The Haunting, he delivers exactly that. Given a blockbuster musical property like West Side Story, with its uneasy blend of passionate feeling and vague attempts at social relevance, he delivers that, too. His background in film editing seemed to give him an edge in making films that moved fluidly and consistently in whatever style he chose. With a great story, he can be superb.  With Odds Against Tomorrow, he had a simple idea but a sharp script by Abraham Polonsky (yes, that Abraham Polonsky, blacklisted screenwriter of Body and Soul and Force of Evil, here relegated to sneaking his work in through an alias). Wise seems particularly inspired by the material and his direction here is as beautiful as anything he accomplished under Val Lewton. It's an unusual thing, to see a '50s movie about racism that looks as good as this one does.

In addition to scripting and direction, Odds Against Tomorrow also has the benefit of a jagged, nervous jazz score by John Lewis. The score careens back and forth from a restless background rhythm, like an onlooker tapping his toe in the background, to blasting, dissonant crescendos. The music is practically screaming at these characters to get out while they still can, but they're living in a film noir and so they don't take the warning.

While Begley, Ryan, and Belafonte all do excellent work, it's no surprise that Robert Ryan emerges as the central protagonist and the most compelling character in the movie. Ryan was already a practiced hand at playing bigots (Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock), bullies (Caught) and out-and-out villains (The Naked Spur). Despite being shy, compassionate, and devoted to liberal causes in real life, Ryan had the ability to tap into something dark and raw onscreen that seemed to go beyond the hammy theatrics of villainy. His characters always seemed to be running away from human connection. Ryan's 6"4" frame made him tower over costars and yet there was a painful vulnerability to his tormented loners. Nobody could do self-loathing like Ryan. 

As Earle Slater, he's a fascinating mess of contradictions, a man who's both tender and vile. Ryan's introductory scene has him scooping up a little black girl running on the street and telling her, "You little pickaninny, you're going to kill yourself flying like that, yes you are." Ryan's voice is so gentle that the impact of the words doesn't fully register until you see him coldly rebuffing the friendly overtures of the black elevator operator, his whole body vibrating with disdain that this man dares to approach him. Slater is no less cruel in his treatment of women, either. He's brusque to girlfriend Shelley Winters, using her and cheating on her. And yet, there's a moment early on where Winters embraces him and Ryan buries his head on her chest, his eyes aching with the need for affection and understanding. 

No less striking is a scene where Ryan responds to the goads of a group of teenagers and ends up decisively punching one out. In a John Wayne movie, this would be the classic moment of the Duke proving his mettle against a callow younger generation. Here, the moment quickly turns embarrassing and awkward for Slater as the boy's whimpers and obvious pain make him look like a sadist. A bartender chastises him and Ryan's face, briefly flushed with triumph, turns confused, even childlike. "I didn't mean to hurt him." Slater's long since given into his worst impulses as a person and these brief flashes of a better nature reveal how painful life is to such a man. He knows enough to know he'll always be in the wrong.

As Slater's forgiving girlfriend Lorry, Shelley Winters gets one particularly good exchange with Ryan. When he tries to explain his scheme as something in her best interest, because what will she do when he gets old, Winters bites back, "You are old now!" Her face briefly reveals a tired certainty that this man will lie to her and fail her, no matter what he promises. It says a lot for the nature of the typical Shelley Winters role that the part of Lorry, hopelessly devoted to an ex-con, is relatively confident and astute in comparison to her standard role. At least nobody's trying to murder her this time.

The other two parts of the criminal trio, Begley and Belafonte, are both excellent in their respective parts. Begley has the least showy part; Burke's just the old-timer trying to make good. But Begley brings the man to life by focusing on his blind, grinning optimism. Burke is a man who knows he just has to score, he just has to make good, there are no other options. 

Belafonte plays Ingram, the only one in the trio who's still young enough and outwardly confident enough to make good without resorting to crime. His first introduction reads like a photo-negative of Ryan's; Belafonte turns up in a shiny car, playfully offers money to all the neighborhood kids to leave the car alone and then makes friendly conversation with the same elevator operator on the way up to Burke's flat. It's only later on that we get a glimpse of the demons that torment Ingram. When charm and persuasion fail to keep his debt collectors off his back (helped along by Burke's machinations), Ingram reveals a simmering resentment and outraged pride, pounding out his frustrations at the night club and yelling out interruptions to his friend's song. 

Even better is a scene with his ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton in a brief but lovely part). The two reveal that they're still desperately attracted to each other and they'd gladly marry again if not for their little girl. Ruth can't trust this gambler to be a good father for her daughter. Ingram reacts to her blunt resignation with a blistering tirade about his wife's white friends. "Drink enough tea with them and stay out of the watermelon patch!" Just like his mirror image Slater, Ingram can't accept that his own faults have driven him into this corner. He'll grasp at anything to avoid taking on the responsibility and this need for blame will carry him away from the real love that he wants.

However, and this is the only major fault I can lay on this movie, Belafonte's rage is never as well-defined as Ryan's. His character is not so complex and while it's implied that he harbors a resentment against the injustices of the white community, his actual history is never explained. This muddles the motivation for Ingram at the end of the film, in a climax that depends on our willingness to believe that both Ingram and Slater have passed the point of reason. We've already seen that Slater has little to live for and might even welcome death. Ingram, on the other hand, has quite a lot to live for and still has plenty of hope for the future. It doesn't make much sense that he would choose hatred and vengeance over simple self-preservation.

While I may quibble at the journey we take to get there, the ending of Odds Against Tomorrow fulfills every bleak promise that it makes. Our heroes are rewarded, maybe not as they all deserve, but by the pitiless rules of the world they live by. They are made equal in spite of themselves. And isn't equality the shining hope of every Hollywood social problem film? Odds Against Tomorrow is what happens when such cockeyed optimism gets rewritten in the icy language of film noir.

Favorite Quote:

"Aren't things ever easy for you, Earle?"
"Only when I get mad. Then they get too easy."

Favorite Scene:

Gloria Grahame has a brief but unforgettable part as Ryan's neighbor, a married mother who starts out knocking on Ryan's door for a babysitter and turns out to be a secret sadomasochist, thrilled by the ex-con's murderous past. Grahame starts out a little stilted in her line delivery, almost as if she's asking for a cooking recipe rather than for detailed descriptions of a manslaughter charge, but the old black magic comes out when Ryan gives into her demand and starts talking. She wants to know what it's like to kill someone and before she can backpedal back into respectability, Ryan leans in. "I enjoyed it," he murmurs into her ear, offering it up like the seduction she wants. Grahame's lids flutter with arousal, and in response, Ryan's whole body seems to relax for the first time. He keeps talking. Even before he tugs Grahame's top off to reveal her bra and the movie cuts to black, you realize that this right here is the climax he's been waiting for. This is the moment where he can live out his sadistic impulses with no shame. And yet, you can't fully be sure how much Ryan's character is really revealing himself and how much is him playing up to the desires of this woman. The performance is that good.

There's something poignant and almost sweet about the casting of Grahame in such a small but still memorable part. If any woman represented the greed, desire, and masochistic longing of the film noir genre (The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, Sudden Fear), she did. In 1959, Grahame was still beautiful, still sensual, but the trampy, troubled women she'd played through the decade were starting to be replaced by different types. Back in 1947, she'd co-starred with Robert Ryan in Crossfire, another film that blended social issues with crime drama. She'd been the tart, he'd been the racist. But back then, Grahame and Ryan had been fresh on the scene and their incendiary talents had won them critical acclaim. They were new, they were modern, they were exciting. Now fast forward to Odds Against Tomorrow, twelve years later and they're playing the same noir archetypes. They're older, wearier, and the regrets of time are palpable. Having them together again in a movie like this feels almost like a true goodbye to the golden age of film noir.

Final Six Words:

Men hanged by their own dreams