Abandoned to the streets and back-alleys of Belfast, to which he is doomed to wander as an exhausted outcast as though he were a modern-day Cain, Johnny McQueen is an IRA chief on the lam from the police following a botched mill robbery (“funds for the Organization”), during which he has killed a man in order to escape. Already Johnny was a fugitive—an escaped convict who has been hidden by Kathleen and her grandmother; and now he is badly wounded, the loss of blood rushing his mind in and out of delirium. Along the way, some people help, and others connive and betray. (The police are offering a reward for help in Johnny’s capture.) Whom can he trust? Answer: Kathleen, who is trying desperately to locate the dying man she loves.
Odd Man Out, from the novel by F.L. Green, is Carol Reed’s best film. (Green and R.C. Sherriff wrote the script.) Others might argue the case for something else by Reed. The scenes in the mine in The Stars Look Down (1939) are extraordinary, nearly at the level of Kameradschaft (G. W. Pabst, 1931), but there are patches of uninteresting melodrama above-ground, especially regarding the character that Margaret Lockwood plays. The Fallen Idol, cleverly written by Graham Greene, is elegant, but Ralph Richardson as a diplomat’s unhappily married servant cannot quite convince that someone who looks like Michèle Morgan, who plays a secretary, could be having an affair with him. Orson Welles’s presence in The Third Man (1949), another Greene-Reed collaboration (for which Welles himself wrote Harry Lime’s key, famous speech), helps underscore the distraction that this cunning, withering film about greedy exploitation of human suffering is highly derivative of Welles’s own filmmaking. As Reed’s films got bigger and bigger (and replaced black and white with color), their interest evaporated. He ended up winning an Oscar for sanitizing and sugaring Dickens in Oliver! (1968), based on Oliver Twist by way of a stage musical. Would it be too cruel and convenient to say that Reed here more or less does as an artist what Lime amorally does with his fake penicillin in The Third Man’s postwar Europe?
A bit protracted and inflated, Odd Man Out is nevertheless a terrific piece of work. The getaway from the mill is a masterful sequence. We already know that the others did not want Johnny to lead the operation, for which his experience ill suited him; besides, since his prison breakout, Johnny has hardly seemed the man they remember. “I’m Johnny McQueen!” a boy in the street shouts, confirming Johnny’s local legendary status. But to his men he seems to have grown moody and disconcertingly reflective, as if he is less with them than inside his own head. Averse to using guns, this former gunrunner has lost his appetite for violence—a fact that renders his killing a soul painfully ironic. While the men’s car is making its getaway, a wounded Johnny cannot quite be taken securely in from the running-board and he falls down in the street. The car stops. The men debate what to do. “Reverse!” one shouts. “He’s dead,” says another. They need to pick up their chief, but they also need to flee the scene, and the conflict between these two requirements enforces a prolonged stasis during which Johnny revives and runs down a side street, chased by a dog. The men return to headquarters, Kathleen and Granny’s place, without their chief. They bicker, blaming one another. But, unconsciously, this is the outcome they sought, their way of blaming Johnny most of all for the afternoon’s fiasco. The whole episode finds Reed dramatizing the men’s ambivalence towards their chief.
Johnny first takes refuge in an air raid shelter. What thematic concision! We are immediately reminded of Ireland’s neutrality in the world war that Johnny “sat out” in prison, which in turn reminds us that such a war doesn’t sweep away other conflicts that exist at home. What was left unresolved remains unresolved. Inside the shelter, Johnny’s delirium takes over and he imagines himself back in his prison cell. With wondrous inflections of lighting and use of dissolves, we are able to see what Johnny thinks that he sees; the shelter becomes a prison cell before our eyes. A child’s ball bounces into the shelter from the alley, and Johnny perceives the boy who enters to retrieve it as the prison guard. Johnny relates his killing the man at the mill offices as a dream; plainly he is happy that this was only a dream—an index of how heavily his taking a man’s life, or his worry that he has done so, weighs on him. But something else marks the moment: the way that Johnny speaks to the guard. He is friendlier and more open with the guard than we have seen him be towards his own men in the Organization. If only he had stayed in prison he would not have killed a man! But his presence of mind returns, the prison cell becomes the shelter again, the guard is now the little boy, and Johnny knows all over again that he probably has killed a man. The force of this scene is much like what hits our heart when we dream of a recently lost loved one and, upon awakening, suffer the loss afresh. For me, this is the most brilliant passage that Reed, abetted by cinematographer Robert Krasker, ever shot.
James Mason is phenomenal as Johnny McQueen; it’s his greatest performance. Kathleen Ryan is wonderful as Kathleen.
Before Johnny exits the shelter for some other refuge, a young couple enter; the girl hopes to marry the boy. The reality is a projection of Johnny’s regret that he and Kathleen haven’t married. His whole bleeding life now is one of sorrow, guilt and regret. It ends tragically—and yet as a relief.
Earlier, before the robbery, Kathleen asked him, “Johnny, will you ever be free?” and he replied, without emphasis, “Someday, perhaps.”
Each time I hear that, I break down and cry.
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