Odd Man Out (1947)

D: Carol Reed
S: James Mason, Robert Newton

Time has been remarkably kind to Carol Reed's 1947 attention-grabber which won great accolades in its day. Set in Northern Ireland and centering on an IRA killer, it was controversial on its origianl release, but it is interesting to view the film in the light of the recent resurgence in Northern Ireland/IRA themed films such as The Devil's Own, Nothing Personal, and Some Mother's Son, if only because it is so aesthetically and politically remote from them as to make it seem truly from not only another era, but another planet.

On the surface it seems a conventional tale of the morality of violence. James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, an IRA officer who is injured during a botched raid in which he kills a man during a struggle. He falls from the getaway car and staggers away into the back streets of the unnamed city to face all kinds of potential dangers including capture and death from his wounds.

If the film had stopped there, or if the chain of events which followed had been more rooted in everyday realities of life in post-war Northern Ireland, it probably would have been a conventional, well-mounted thriller in the M mould. But it quickly becomes an abstract treatise on human nature (as M itself was) as the city throws up a variety of bizarre incidents and supporting characters worthy of Orson Welles (with whom Reed would work two years later on The Third Man). Add to this the strikingly expressionist black and white photography, the use of surreal dream scenes and set decoration and a truly unhinged performance by Robert Newton as a homosexual painter obsessed with capturing the darkness of the human soul, and you have the type of film which if made in colour would have a substantial cult following among trendy teenage fetishists today.

Odd Man Out has as little to do with the political realities of Northern Ireland or of violence itself than its most notable precursor, John Ford's The Informer. Instead it renders its themes in broad strokes while Reed crafts the details with care and attention. These are splendid, from the oppressive paranoia of Johnny's sojourn in a bomb shelter to the nightmarish unreality of the eerie baroque building where Newton lives (snow falls through the roof and one room is full of bird cages). The result is a stunningly assembled succession of scenes and images which, while they may not have specific contextual meaning or add up to a cohesive statement, are never less than fascinating.

Based on the novel by F.L. Green, the film is arguably a product of a schizophrenic society, demonstrating the collapse of rationality in the face of the loss of definite identity. But even this is a stretch, and those hoping for a strong moral stance, or a realistic portrait of a troubled country will not find it. This is a film about the subjectivity of human experience within society (hence the title), and ultimately one is left to consider it outside the realms of realpolitik; an uncomfortable situation given the setting and the premise. Even the scenes which threaten to engage the real issues (including the police inspection of Ryan's house or when Mason staggers into the home of some well-meaning English ladies) transgress the boundaries very quickly with hyper-conscious dialogue and a plethora of meaningful close-ups which allow actors and camera to ply their trade.

Mason attracted considerable attention in the lead role in 1947, and does a good job of rendering the levels of increasing pain and disorientation affecting his character throughout. But he seems relatively lifeless by comparison with some of his co-stars, from Netwon's demented artist to F.J. McCormick's vividly opportunistic tramp. Each of the minor characters possesses great strength, and frequently threaten to take over the plot. Played by the likes of Cyril Cusack, W. G. Fay, Maureen Delany and William Hartnell, each is well rounded out and comes convincingly to life, only to vanish abruptly when their scene is over.

Reed succeeds in building tension nonetheless, and it is primarily a thriller. But the plot does not bear close scrutiny and is not as engaging as the tone and mood. The atmosphere alone is gripping enough to hold the film together, and it builds to an acceptably tense climax even though the outcome is never in doubt. There is a prevailing sense of doom which comes with the police pursuit and Johnny's ever-weakening condition, and in its own way, the film does capture the sense of the suicidal leaning towards civil war prevalent in the province.

But it never comes close to capturing the realities of the situation, or addressing the questions of morality and identity which seem to be at the root of the smoke and mirrors. One is overcome with the sense of a heightened metaphysical drama being played out in the 'real' world (possibly symbolising Johnny's disintegrating mental state). The result is either exhilarating or offensive, depending on your political orientation (most Irish critics and academics are of the latter disposition). Either way it is difficult to deny the artistry with which the film has been put together, and its enduring power some fifty years after its original release.

Odd Man Out is a film well worth seeing and certainly bears comparison with some of its more recent descendants.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.