A bit of on-screen text opens Odd Man Out, preemptively positioning the viewer’s perspective in the direction of the film’s characters rather than its politics. A not uncommon act of creative exoneration for a product of mid-century cinematic entertainment, the title card—which duly asserts the filmmakers’ concern for “the hearts of the people” depicted, not the “struggle between the law and an illegal organization”—nonetheless situates the narrative at a universal level appropriate for a film of particularly human, psychological interests. Released in 1947 and directed by British journeyman Carol Reed, Odd Man Out is indeed a character study wrapped in the guise of a sociopolitical thriller, and a work which accordingly plays better when accentuating the moral and personal complexities of the former through the aesthetic prism of the latter, shedding the weight of topical investment even as the shadows of its influence hang literally and figuratively on the film’s dramatic landscape.
Quickly mapping its vast character and geographic coordinates, the film stars James Mason as Johnny McQueen, a radical insurgent on the lam in Belfast whose plot to rob a mill risks not only the freedom of him and his gang, but the well-being of the women who have housed the rebels in the wake of their leader’s prison break. Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), in love with Johnny, has taken it upon herself to aid the crew, and as the film opens we arrive at an upstairs room in her house where Johnny lays out for his men the tactical details of the sting. When the heist goes wrong and Johnny is wounded, forcing him to kill an armed cashier in the process, the team splits and is sent on individual paths away from the scene and into the dead of night. From there, Odd Man Out, with its allusions to the post-war initiative of the Irish Republican Army, proceeds to transpire over the course of a single evening as Johnny, bloody and dying, decamps to various urban enclaves while his men divorce themselves from the robbery and Kathleen attempts to reconvene with her lover as the police question her association with the group. What results is a knotty drama of strained allegiances, interpersonal imperatives, and spiritual recompense, visualized as a nocturnal trip through the recesses of one man’s troubled psyche.
Reed, whose primary talent lied less in his ability to articulate a particular worldview than it did in sagely enlisting skilled collaborators, established with Odd Man Out a synergetic working method which would bring about a string of his most popular successes at the close of the 1940s. Based on a book by F.L. Green and co-written by playwright and novelist R.C. Sherriff, Odd Man Out fully evinced Reed’s growing proclivity for the world of literature, perhaps accounting for the humane ethos and nuanced character relations of both this film and his two subsequent projects, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, each with screenplays by Graham Greene (the director’s later films would feature source material by, among others, Joseph Conrad, Max Catto, and Jan de Hartog). Just as important is the employment of cinematographer Robert Krasker, whose evocative, expressionistic lighting and starkly variegated black-and-white palette simultaneously anticipated the noir stylings of The Third Man, his most celebrated collaboration with Reed, and ably actualized the inner turmoil of the film’s antiheroes. As the narrative unfolds and Johnny continues to lose considerable amounts of blood, slipping at times in an out of consciousness, so, too, do Reed and Krasker’s compositions grow more abstract and densely orchestrated, with superimpositions and elemental visual effects crowding the frame while heightening the film’s sense of spiraling fate.
Reed’s most famous collaborator was, of course, Orson Welles, co-star of The Third Man and its generally regarded (rightly or wrongly) artistic stimulus. But Welles’s influence can also be felt in the formal foreplay of Odd Man Out; likewise rooted in the feel of poetic realism and the look of German Expressionism, the film and the shape of its plot can just as often appear to predict the nested narrative of The Third Man. As in that later work, much of Odd Man Out is given over to conversations about an off-screen character—in this case Johnny—who nonetheless propels the action through his own non-action. In lieu of a traditional protagonist, supporting characters are tasked with preserving the story’s intrigue. These include a sympathetic priest (W.G. Fay), a steely eyed police officer (Denis O’Dea), a down-on-his-luck local (F.J. McCormick), and an opportunistic artist (Robert Newton)—idiosyncratic figures granted individual episodes with narrative consequence ranging from purely functional to genuinely stirring. The film’s through line, however, is Johnny and Kathleen’s doomed romance, wrested from their grip only to be reclaimed and, ultimately, sealed by their own hands. It’s a bleak, suitably intimate conclusion to a film which from its opening proclamation portends something expressly visceral.
Criterion brings Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out to Blu-ray in an appropriately atmospheric high-definition transfer. The picture is darkly shaded and moody, with plenty of texture and grain in evidence. Contrast is likewise balanced, and the blacks and grays, while leaning soft, seem authentically presented. The image hasn’t been overly buffed, as minor artifacts remain, preserving its celluloid qualities. Sound, meanwhile, is kept to a linear, single-channel PCM track, with William Alwyn’s score in particular translating in alternately romantic and robust fashion. Peripheral noise is kept to a minimum, allowing voices to stand mostly free of aural impediment at front of the mix.
Supplements are ample and wide-ranging. Two new interviews are included, one with British cinema scholar John Hill discussing the film’s Irish backdrop, and another with music scholar Jeff Smith who talks of composer William Alywn’s approach to the score. Elsewhere is a new short documentary about the film’s influence and legacy, featuring interviews with, among others, critic Tony Rayns and director John Boorman; a lengthy 1974 documentary in which James Mason guides the viewer on a tour of his hometown of Huddersfield; and the audio track from a 1952 radio adaptation of the film starring Mason and Dan O’Herlihy. Finally, appended to the package is a thoughtful and informative essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.
Inaugurating a succession of his most popular successes, director Carol Reed’s post-war thriller Odd Man Out arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion looking appropriately atmospheric.