This post-noir crime drama, a massive influence on Jean-Pierre Melville, explodes onto DVD in the UK.
An obvious and substantial influence on Jean-Pierre Melville, the 1959 post-noir Odds Against Tomorrow nonetheless remains one of the more disappointing films of merit from its era. The heist drama features so many fascinating ingredients, from the striking opening titles sequence to an inspired musical interlude with Harry Belafonte and capped off by a devastating failure of a bank robbery, that anyone with an interest in either the film noir entries that preceded Robert Wise’s picture or the Melville crime tragedies that later walked in its footsteps should justifiably give the movie a watch. Just temper expectations accordingly for a frustrating, uneven experience that ultimately fails to satisfy. This is despite a dream cast, filled out by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte in the leads and three Oscar winners for support. One of the great versatile craftsmen, who worked his way from editing Citizen Kane at RKO to winning Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, Robert Wise shows a steady hand from the director’s seat while blacklistee Abraham Polonsky, writer of both Body and Soul and Force of Evil and director of the latter, co-adapted the screenplay without receiving any credit. But when I watch or even think about the film, I can’t resist wondering why it isn’t better.
The criminal triangle is peaked by scheming ex-cop Burke (Ed Begley) who enlists a white racist (Ryan) and a black man in debt (Belafonte) to help him rob a bank in upstate New York. Where other heist films often try to make audiences sympathize with the robbery participants, Odds Against Tomorrow seems unconcerned with pleasantries. Ryan’s character Slater is an accented, ex-con killer who distrusts black people (giving Ryan, apparently a much nicer man than the roles he played, a bigot companion to his Oscar-nominated turn as an anti-Semite in Crossfire). Belafonte is Ingram, a nightclub performer who’d rather bet his money on horses and cards than provide for his young daughter, putting him $7,500 in the hole to a bookie. Rounding out the main cast are two empty parts for Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame, who are pretty much wasted as Ryan’s girlfriend and upstairs neighbor, respectively. Grahame, in probably her last notable film role, is still effective as a really strange woman whom Ryan beds in one of those misogynistic “no means yes” scenes we sometimes see in older movies. I can’t figure out whether Grahame’s character is intended to be mentally slow or just lonely, but I like the off-kilter way she plays her in a pair of memorable scenes.
Less successful is Ryan’s performance, an especially sad example of exhausting your antagonist quota. Watching him play a bigoted war veteran with no redeemable qualities becomes a troubling experience but not for the intended reasons. Ryan was a highly skilled actor too often relegated to villains. He typically still made them interesting and sometimes beautifully walked the tightrope between inspiring slight sympathy and fear. His turn in Odds Against Tomorrow plunders along a single frequency. The mysteries pulled back only reveal more dislike, a man filled solely with hate. The counterpart is Belafonte, playing another man who’s difficult to like. The brief scenes between him and his daughter seem designed to attach a complexity to the character, but there’s no sincerity. The balloon he’s supposed to be taking care of for her gets popped by some teenagers when Ingram calls Burke in a phone booth. A ride on the merry-go-round is cut short when he has to address a couple of underworld goons. These incidents are obviously not endearing, and they fail to give us any reason to care. The idea that both men are bad people of possibly varying degrees is reinforced over and over.
In leaving behind the intricacies of the characters, a hardly insignificant thing to forgive, we can begin to see the film’s strengths and what probably intrigued Melville. These men come together for the heist and only the heist, exhibiting no attempts at friendship. There’s a single goal, which the film primarily concerns itself with for most of its running time. If you’ve seen Melville’s crime thrillers you won’t be surprised at the result in Odds Against Tomorrow. That same fatalistic guiding of life and death is in play on Wise’s movie. The French director would perfect some of these similar themes, making the American film seem unfocused in comparison. Melville also knew how to use suspense and a methodical frigidity much more than we see in this picture, which spends too much time with the lacking personal lives of the main characters and fails to deliver the memorable heist that had been simmering throughout the film. A common element in French crime stories of that era, whether it’s Dassin’s Rififi, Becker’s Le Trou or the work of Melville, is patience. That could be the most crucial of Odds Against Tomorrow‘s shortcomings.
To the film’s credit, though, it does feature a hardly bettered jazz score from John Lewis and a perfectly bluesy song by Belafonte. In truth, it’s the music that brings me back to Odds Against Tomorrow more than anything else. A vocal performance from Mae Barnes puts another cherry on top. There’s also plenty to like when looking at the aggregate rather than just focusing on its aftertaste as an underachiever. Wise generally is an adept captain and I’m particularly fond of the shots he uses that feature peace and stillness amid such an ugly array of characters. Cinematographer Joseph C. Brun adds some warily evocative work. Whether it’s inside Winters’ apartment or when Belafonte takes his little girl to Central Park, what we see ably frames the necessary mood. The conflict between liking this and disliking that could spill out indefinitely, but any film with the attributes on display here is at least worth seeking out, on multiple occasions even. Disappointment is very noirish.
Optimum brings Odds Against Tomorrow to R2 DVD. The PAL release differs from its R1 MGM counterpart by using the original opening credit screen featuring the name of John O. Killens (a front who was friends with Belafonte) instead of the blacklisted Polonsky. (Click here for a comparison between the original credit found in R2 and the amended version on the R1.)
I’m not sure why, but the film was apparently shot in Academy ratio despite widescreen formats typically ruling the day by 1959. Optimum adheres to the full screen presentation with a progressive transfer found on its single-layered disc. Some infrequent damage pops up a few times and I’d wager this is slightly softer than the R1 MGM image. The contrast also seems to be a shade inferior, with the R2 especially grey for a film already heavy in that direction. Optimum’s transfer will nonetheless be satisfactory for most and presents no major issues.
The English mono is the only option made available. The track is clean but unimpressive. Audio sounds low and stilted, with dialogue still audible. Music in the film cowers meekly instead of roaring through the front speakers. Optimum once again has stubbornly refused to include subtitles.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum