I wondered this recently after revisiting the film on television—following a period of not having seen it for quite a while. My taste for it has never waned, but I had forgotten some of the nuances that are present in this very complex, textured film, which stars James Mason as the leader of an illegal organisation in Belfast, Ireland (the group is unnamed in the film, but we can guess which one it’s based on), as he, mortally wounded, struggles to survive in the postscript of a robbery attempt. The choice of music during one tense scene at a supposed sympathiser’s house: Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in all its brooding glory. The sounds of the street during a busy evening. The black shadows of Robert Krasker’s cinematography, watching from corners, enveloping the humans who traverse the alleys.
These are all qualities of a masterpiece, one that should be recognised in hallowed celluloid halls, put on display constantly, scheduled for TV often.
So why isn’t it?
There’s something to be said about enjoying a film that’s not very famous. It makes aficionados feel special, that they alone can savour the power of the picture … and not fall into the trap of enjoying more popular entertainments. But there’s also a loneliness inherent in liking something so little known; fans are few and far between, and praise is hard to find. You don’t find many clips of it on YouTube, though what you do find is great:
Isn’t that a stupendous scene? The combination of Mason’s sublime oratorical skills, the glorious words of this biblical passage from Corinthians and William Alwyn’s soaring music make it something to remember, to cherish—and I have, ever since I first watched it.
With content like that, Odd Man Out ought to be on the lips of every cineaste around the world.
It’s not, though, and I’m bothered by that. I have a potential theory why—and it doesn’t have to do with the politics of the movie, which I feel are observed in a relatively nonjudgmental way. Instead, it may well be because of the morbid, unrelenting plot: Mason’s delirious Johnny McQueen is in agony for most of the film, looking to get home while nursing a gunshot wound and being helped by various characters who want to use him for their own benefit.
Not exactly a subject you’d see in the latest Adam Sandler picture, right?
Odd Man Out is definitely weighty viewing—there’s no doubt about that. But like Shakespeare or Dickens, it provides rewards beyond most of its competitors. Reed’s direction is magnificent; the cast, from Robert Newton as the drunken artist Lukey to Kathleen Ryan as the woman who loves McQueen despite his flaws, is astounding. Then you have Krasker’s cinematography, which gives us portraits serving as an audience and heads appearing in beer bubbles, as well as Alwyn’s score, as gorgeous and melancholy as any to accompany a film.
I don’t find this a challenging flick. Rather, it’s all-encompassing, like a great novel. And I think it should be ranked with the other masterpieces of world cinema, from The Seventh Seal (1957) to Pather Panchali (1955) to Seven Samurai (1954).
It’s a pity that it’s not.
Popular opinion is fickle. Perceptions of movies change over time, and likes, as well as dislikes, mutate with the eras. It’s possible that with more exposure, this could happen to Odd Man Out. Certainly, it deserves to be seen more frequently. But will it? Will the public start to welcome a gruelling 1940s British film about “the troubles” that doesn’t have a happy ending?
I’m not sanguine about those prospects, though the appearance of the film on cable—where I watched it most recently—bodes well for further viewership. This is the type of picture that should be shown to students in schools, put in museums alongside other works of art, raised on a pedestal. Not to remove it from accessibility, of course, but to promote it … to give it the stature worthy of a 20th-century masterpiece. It should not remain hidden from people who relish quality filmmaking. It ought to be put on display.
Perhaps I’m naïve—well, not perhaps. I am naïve! But I’m ever-hopeful, too, and I’d like to think that someday, this movie will get as many “likes” on YouTube as the latest Justin Bieber video. OK, that’s just a fantasy, but you get my drift. I wish that people would see this movie more. I wish it would be more widely available.
Once upon a time, back when I was in college, I used to go watch classic movies in the local film society to see the reaction they got from audiences. People screamed during the scene in Rear Window (1954) when Raymond Burr’s murderous Lars Thorwald stares into the camera after noticing Grace Kelly’s Lisa fiddle with his wife’s ring. Folks laughed during Duck Soup (1933) as the Marx Brothers did their stuff.
I would love to be in a theatre to observe how viewers react to Odd Man Out. I’ll bet many people would end up crying—like my wife after watching it the other night with me. But it would be a good cry. A healthy one. Something earned from one of moviedom’s masterworks.
Will I live to see that day? I’m not sure. I will long for it, though, and remain optimistic that it could happen.
In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Aragorn says: “There is always hope.” That’s what I think, and I’ll hold onto it for Odd Man Out as long as it’s needed.