Film Noir: Odds Against Tomorrow

1959

Directed By: Robert Wise

Screenplay By: Abraham Polonsky (as John O. Killen) and Nelson Gidding – based upon the novel by:  William P. McGivern

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley

Probably now better known for his epic musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), Robert Wise also directed some other hugely significant films during his illustrious career(Star Trek, The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still).  This gem is from 1959 and is one of the first productions funded by Harry Belafonte’s imaginatively titled production company HarBel.

It is a tightly wound heist thriller that carries a bold political message about racism.

Disgraced ex-NYPD officer Dave Burke (Ed Begley), in the twilight of his years, hatches a plan to rob a bank in a quiet town in upstate New York.  The heist only needs two other men in on the job and will net them a cool $50,000 dollars each.

The small town bank holds large amounts of cash in preparation for payday and regularly receives a food order from the local deli.  With the bank staff being old and perhaps naive, Burke realises that by replacing the deli’s delivery guy, they can make their way into the bank and complete the robbery.  What makes him so confident that they can replace the delivery guy without the bank staff noticing is that the delivery guy is black.

The two men he recruits are poles apart.  Firstly, ex-con Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a self confessed bigot who initially backs out of the plan when he finds out so much hinges on a black accomplice, but goes along with it when he realises there is nothing else he can turn his hand to to make money.  Secondly, gambling addict and lounge singer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) who reluctantly joins in order to prevent his estranged wife and his child from getting hurt by the gangster he owes money to.

Naturally, tensions run high between the two and Wise cranks up the tension as the film progresses.

Wise presents New York (superbly filmed on location) as other-worldly, depicting it as a rain-soaked, litter strewn and strangely deserted city which seems to increase the feeling of isolation the two hired men, Slater & Johnny seem to share.  They are a pretty helpless pair that have played themselves into the last chance saloon and seem, deep down, to know it.

Sure, Johnny spends the day with his daughter, but he spends much of that time calling Burke to accept the deal and dealing with mobsters than truly spending that quality time.  And Slater resents being a kept man by his lover (the much under used Shelley Winters) who clearly has a steady job and income.  They each seem to carry an air of self loathing and self-destruction.

The style of the film, from the opening Jazzy score and vibrantly hip titles through to the hip cat talk and the seemingly gorilla film making in the streets of New York, put me in mind more of the French New Wave style of A Bout de Soufflé and Cassavettes Faces (both made much later) than a film noir.  In fact, Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samurai, Le Cercle Rouge) has sited this film as a big influence on him.   But, there are enough elements to make this a good example of the heist film noir (in a similar vein to Kubrick’s The Killing) with plenty of use of shadows and stark silhouettes and angled views.

Belafonte is cool, but not so cool that he can’t seem desperate and he carries his side of the film well. Of course, he does have a musical number in it, but it doesn’t seem contrived or out of place.   Ryan rarely puts in a bad performance and he exudes menace in a fine performance here, particularly the scene involving his neighbour and also when he spits out the N-word when referring to Belafonte.  Only Ed Begley seems a little weak in his role, but then, aside from the first few minutes, little time is spent exploring his character.

It’s a superbly downbeat tale which only falls down when delivering its moral message in a hopelessly clumsy way at the end.

Noir Cynicism 08/10: bad men do bad things.  None of them have any particularly redeeming qualities.
Noir Femme Fatale 01/10: none to speak of, despite Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame appearing, they hold no true femme fatale power.
Noir Anti-Hero 10/10: How anti do you like your heroes.  These guys are a bad bunch alright, not so much as a chance of redemption amongst them.
Noir Crime 08/10: a bank robbery that is given a relatively short amount of screen time for a heist movie.
Noir Dough $50,000 each – enough to set them up for life.
Noir Body Count 3
Noir Style 10/10: if it influenced Melville it’s good enough for me!

 

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