Hope and Glory: ‘Odd Man Out’ and the Need for Cinematic Recognition

Odd Man OutWhy isn’t Carol Reed’s heavy-hitting 1947 drama Odd Man Out better known?

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 OutOdd 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.

Odd Man OutOnce 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.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

9 thoughts on “Hope and Glory: ‘Odd Man Out’ and the Need for Cinematic Recognition

  1. Great article!

    I watched and reviewed this film recently too and I have to agree that it is underrated. I think it comes from the age old problem of having that one iconic film which everyone knows thus it springs to mind whenever a director’s name is mentioned.

    If Reed had the same status of a Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lang, Kurosawa, etc then film fans and the casual audience would be more exposed to his entire catalogue and not just naturally beholden to his most famous work.

    • Thanks! And I agree–Reed’s career has been dominated by The Third Man (which I admit is a masterpiece) and Oliver! (which I don’t care for), while Odd Man Out has fallen by the public-perception wayside. The directors you’ve mentioned offer a surplus of great films; it’s so hard to single out one from their collections.

  2. I think Reed is an undervalued director in the States in part because he was overshadowed in his best known movie. People assume Welles deserves a lot of the credit for The Third Man. But that run of three post-war movies — Odd Man Out, Fallen Idol, and Third Man — are as good a run of three as any director I know of. And Outcast of the Island is pretty damn good too. After that, right as world cinema was about to explode, he seems to have lost something. The movies got bigger and that remarkable ability he had to capture desperate men in intimate detail seems to have disappeared. But he was very good, even before the post-war films. Night Train to Munich is a strong Hitchcockian thriller. And I agree — Odd Man Out deserves much greater recognition.

    • I’ll tell ya one thing, Jon: I’d rather watch Odd Man Out any day over Oliver! or anything else of its ilk. I’d also put The Man Between up there–a very fine film. And yes, I agree that Welles’ contributions to The Third Man often overshadow Reed’s, who supplied direction that was no less critical.

  3. Well Simon, at least in my house, this film is well-known, and receives due praise. I have always thought it to be a classic of British Cinema, despite the casting of an English actor as an Irishman, when there were plenty of suitable Irish actors.
    As to whether it will ever receive proper appreciation, in an age of comic-book blockbusters and relentless sequels and remakes; I think we both know the answer to that.
    Best wishes. Pete.

    • I agree with you, Pete. The casting is definitely interesting; Mason was obviously chosen not only for his abilities, but also for his matinee-idol looks. But it works, and he delivers a scintillating performance. From an appreciation standpoint, more frequent appearances on cable should help enhance its reputation, at least in a small way.

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