In my profession, there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That’s all. ~ Denis O’Dea as the Police Inspector
What Carol Reed did so impeccably with The Third Man and here in Odd Man Out is developing a very specific atmosphere. He made the worlds of Vienna and in this case, the unnamed avenues of Northern Ireland come alive not simply by developing the setting in such a way that’s full of character and intrigue but still managing to craft a compelling story within that very same framework. It sets the stage for numerous vivid individuals to come alive because all the contours are colored in and filled out for the audience to enjoy.
Particularly in Odd Man Out, you can visualize Reed taking a certain historical moment and broadening its scope. Because his story, based off a novel by FL Green, is really about the IRA in Ireland who some would call patriots and most would call terrorists. Even some of their fellow people. Still, the majority would shower them with indifference but that’s where the narrative finds its footing. It opens with the following interlude:
“This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”
In this sense, a highly charged situation is pulled from its cultural subtext and Reed masterfully focuses on the universal aspects of the human experience that are found there. James Mason gives one of the most stirring performances of his career both vulnerable and strangely reserved. For much of the film he takes a back seat, almost working on the fringes of the storyline and yet it works quite well. I suppose in some ways, like Harry Lime, a couple years later, even when he’s not in the frame he’s off paramount importance because his name is on everyone’s lips.
The reason is this. Following his release from prison, Johnny has begun the planning stages of a bank heist in broad daylight. It’s never stated very explicitly but the assumption si that they need some capital to bankroll their cause. Still, Johnny and three buddies hold up the joint. But on the way back to the getaway car Johnny gets detained by a guard and a discharging gun leaves both men mortally wounded.
The whole film hinges on the aftermath of this even and the fact that this is a heist film is quickly forgotten because it surpasses the basic parameters of a crime movie destined for grander aspirations altogether. Look at it more closely and again and again Odd Man Out reiterates the fact that this is really about all people. Because any given conflict will always and forever elicit some sort of response from any single person. That’s how we are wired and one conflict will cause a ripple of interpersonal conflicts in any person who becomes involved. That’s where this film is coming from.
It’s such a classic menagerie of figures each with their own distinctiveness. Moments where they reveal even a very little bit about who they are. Whether it’s the old crone who invites the fugitives into her parlor only to call the cops of them. Maybe it’s a cabbie or a bar owner or a vagabond obsessed with birds who lives with a delusional painter. The story takes us through the bar halls, the streets, private homes, trams, carriages, churches, and wherever else the general public spends their waking hours. Much of Dublin’s Abbey Theater was called upon to star in the film and they certainly are a colorful lot.
At first, it was off-putting that the film sunk into almost hallucinatory territory as Johnny drifts in between delirium, visions, and bits and pieces of memories that all come to the fore as he struggles with his excruciating pain. The hourglass is slowly winding down. But his faithful love Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) is resolutely looking to save him from the clutches of the police and anyone else who might want to do him harm.
In one particularly stirring moment, Johnny can be heard recounting a few jumbled tidbits from 1 Corinthians 13:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
Meanwhile, Kathleen is seeking counsel with Father Tom and she seems to come to much the same conclusion. She opts for love over his religion because that is what she feels pulsing through her with all its overwhelming strength. Her faith is in her love. Nothing else.
It all culminates in a deadly finale. We could not expect anything less still that does not make the film’s conclusion any less jarring. Even today it’s a surprisingly candid denouement. There are no two ways about it. No ambiguity left. We know what fate befalls someone such as Johnny. This is a tragic human drama after all.
So in some scenes, it indubitably has twinges of film noir. Visually it’s indisputably noirish, atmospheric not only in lighting but with the additions of elements from pelting rain to falling snow. Still, the philosophy that runs through its frames feels far different than your typical hardboiled cynicism. There’s something else working here and that’s just a bit of what sets Odd Man Out apart from its various contemporaries. Johnny and Kathleen represent something slightly different. Still, it does beg the question, can their love (or charity) be their ultimate redemption?
Religious hard lining or legalism is hardly the answer and you could never possibly accuse someone like Father Tom of such a crime anyways. He seems a far more humble individual than that but that does put Kathleen’s decision as well as Johnny’s citing of the good book into some question as well. How far can you go in saying that love can be your salvation or does their need to be something further still? I guess you could say that’s the inner conflict in the hearts of many of these people who get involved: Love, charity, and innocence versus guilt.