Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Who really is the odd man out?

As Johnny McQueen, played by James Mason, is shuffled from person to person, group to group, and location to location throughout the first half of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, he becomes the obvious title character. Nobody wants him and, like the ball from the old children’s game, McQueen becomes a hot potato. Drop him quick before the police or his friends catch wind becomes the functioning set of rules guiding his interactions. But a wider and more encompassing view of the movie forces the viewer to accept McQueen as not the odd man out but an odd man out as every character who meets McQueen faces a similar sense of impotence when confronted with the forces of fate. Whether the character is Shell, the classic forgotten man portrayed as a mercenary Ms. Flyte,[1] Grannie, the singular widow, or Fencie the Barman, who finds himself squeezed between the unnamed group run by McQueen and the police, each character finds him or her self singled out by fate and placed in a position where they must make a choice to act (by either helping McQueen or surrendering him to the police) or to attempt inaction (by pushing McQueen on to somebody else).

There are two characters in the film who do not meet Johnny McQueen despite their efforts to find him. Through these characters, the viewer is invited to break from what Reed presents visually as reality and to recognize the outsider aspect he or she is being led to experience when watching the movie. These characters subvert the visual reality allowing for various aspects of the movie to operate “out of relation to the first presentation of the subject matter,”[2] which profoundly affects the viewer’s relationship with the film.

The Inspector

The first of these characters, in order of appearance, is Denis O’Dea’s as the Inspector. Shortly after McQueen gives a factory representative a fatal case of lead poisoning and members of his gang spill the story to the local madam, the Inspector arrives at the home of Grannie and Kathleen Sullivan. In film noir cliché, he enters the room last.[3] His authority is marked by the cameras focus of him in the doorway. The emblem on his right arm is highlighted in the shot making it a glowing contrast to the black staff in his left hand. He is justice: Not concerned with right or wrong, the inspector enforces the law on the basis of black and white guilt and innocence. He does not ask why an action was taken; he only seeks the perpetrator. The inspector represents the authority of the city and, due to the nature of Johnny McQueen’s crime, the “civic order [,] which he represents, must be satisfied.”[4]

Modern reviews of Odd Man Out note the movie’s “high contrast between light and dark,”[5] in a city defined by its “unforgiving landscape.”[6] As its representative of authority, the inspector embodies these aspects of the city. Sullivan’s love for McQueen is meaningful only as a tool of his capture. The inspector is as unforgiving as the inclement weather that chills the wounded man. The reason or intention behind the crime matters little to the inspector’s motivation of guilt verse innocence in the same way the lighting’s dichotomy allows for either visibility or blindness with no shades of gray. In this way, the inspector, as a character and as a representative of the city, acting as the agent of authority and the tool of civic justice shifts the viewer from watching a nuanced reality to a observing an acted out philosophy in a black and white world. It leaves them removed from the characters – no longer are they simply cheering for either the antagonist or protagonist, they are now looking for a moral and a lesson.

The Priest

A typical counter balance to the man of law, as represented by the inspector, is the priest. Usually Catholic, the priest operates within a society but with an allegiance to a larger organization, the Catholic Church. Father Tom is no exception. In her desire to help McQueen escape the problems of this world, Sullivan goes to Father Tom to discover if he’s heard word of McQueen’s whereabouts. Like the Inspector, the priest also desires to find the fugitive. But, justice is not his concern. He views the world in terms of right and wrong and the ability to be forgiven of one of the graver sins.

Father Tom never meets with McQueen, but in the Lukey’s apartment, Shell passes word to McQueen that Sullivan is with the priest waiting to meet him. Suddenly, the film switches from a rather realistic format to a surreal montage where paintings fly from the walls and line up like an audience. The priest is standing in the center of them counseling McQueen but he is unable to make out the words due to the shouting in the background. The scene climaxes in “a hysterical and rather cliché morality play,”[7] with McQueen recital of 1 Corinthians. It is an attempt to recast McQueen in a different light than the criminal who leads his gang into an armed robbery that he botches. It tries to turn him into a freedom fighter who is striving for an idea worth dying for. This twist has McQueen realizing even though he has given all the money to the poor, he has profited nothing by it.[8]

But this shift in realities directly caused the mention of Father Tom’s name to an addled McQueen, acts to alienate the viewer who has had no opportunity to see McQueen as moralistic human. Rather, the viewer has only seen McQueen as “a terrifying picture of a wounded man, disheveled, agonized and nauseated, straining valiantly and blindly to escape,”[9] not as a conflicted philosopher who has attempted to act nobly but lacked the proper intention. This acts to turn the film from a story to be viewed by an audience into “an enormous fantasy, a fantasy of the unconscious, a confession, a private dream.”[10] Although, in the original book, “the prospect of a stringent moral choice” managed to create enough “uneasiness”[11] within the reader to allow for philosophical inquiries, the ability to logically follow McQueen’s spiritual emotional growth to this climatic scene was one of the “inflated ideas in the script” that prevented Carol Reed from “creating a masterpiece.”[12] It leaves the viewer feeling disjointed, like a step, a thought, or a scene has been missed.

The real odd man out

Together, the Inspector and Father Tom act to move the film “away from reality” and into a “general antirealistic context.”[13] The Inspector does this by taking away nuance from the very real world created by Green and Reed so it becomes a morality story. The priest adds to this by suddenly and drastically altering the main character at a very belated point in the movie. These forces push the viewer away from reality and into an exaggerated and simplified world with the same color scheme as the movie itself: black and white. While it may be cinematically possible to examine some discursive life philosophies with out alienating the viewer, it is not possible to “examine life without opening a floodgate of truths, for the world is generous in revealing its systems… But when these truths conflict with presupposition rooted in interest, then you must obey the truth or refuse to look. In Odd Man Out the storytellers refused to look.”[14]

By refusing to deal with these conflicts, the viewer is left feeling like he or she has stumbled like an unwanted guest into somebody else’s private dream. Essentially, the effects of these two characters allow for the title to be taken not only as a reference to most of the characters within the film but also as a reference to the viewer who is now on the outside of somebody else’s thought, looking in.

[1] Charles Dickens, Bleak House, (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1881), chapter 14.

[2] Abraham Polonsky, “‘Odd Man Out and’ and ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’” Hollywood Quarterly 2 no. 4 (July 1947): 401 – 407.

[3] Odd Man Out, prod. And dir. Carol Reed, 1 hr. 56 min., Two Cities Ltd., 1947, videocassette.

[4] Polonsky, 403.

[5] Lance Pettit, “Screening Ireland,” (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 32.

[6] Parkinson, David “Odd Man Out,” Radio Times, 256 no. 3353 (5 March 1988): 16.

[7] Polonsky, 403.

[8] “I Corinthians,” New American Bible, (Patterson NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1970), chapter 13 verse 3.

[9] Bosley Crowther, “‘Odd Man Out,’ British Film in Which James Mason Again Is the Chief Menace, Has Its Premiere at Loew’s Criterion,” The New York Times, 24 April 1947, sec. A page 30.

[10] Polonsky, 403.

[11] Eunice S. Holsaert “Inching Toward Certain Doom,” The New York Times, 10 February 1947, sec. BR page 10.

[12] Pauline Kael, “Odd Man Out (Film),” New Yorker, 65 no. 22 (17 July 1989): 22.

[13] Polonsky, 405-406.

[14] Polonsky, 406.

For a complete bibliography and/or permission to use the above text beyond the terms of fair use, please contact the author, Joseph R. Thompson, by email listener83@maine.rr.com

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