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An Exchange of Bullets in Belfast

Revisiting Carol Reed's 1947 masterpiece Odd Man Out

By David Lehman | July 9, 2020
Actor James Mason (Wikimedia Commons)
Actor James Mason (Wikimedia Commons)

British director Carol Reed turned out three masterpieces in the late 1940s. With an exemplary performance from Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol (1948) does justice to Graham Greene’s brilliant story “The Basement Room.” The Third Man (1949), the most celebrated of the three, has its unforgettable zither theme, its evocation of postwar Vienna, and its extraordinary script, including the speech Orson Welles improvised at the Prater amusement park. Fierce competition, but my vote for Reed’s best goes to Odd Man Out (1947), a modern passion play about a doomed man in the shadows and alleys of his last hours alive.

Odd Man Out foregrounds political and religious themes and differs thereby from most film noirs. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to claim it for the category. The setting is Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the people take their Catholicism seriously, and the robbery that triggers the plot is committed not by your typical thieves but by an unnamed underground movement, presumably the IRA. Thanks to the inspired cinematography—the hero’s haunted profile, the desolate cityscape, the long narrow alleys—the Belfast we see is a dark and bleak war zone.

You may argue that the revolutionary cause is undermined in Odd Man Out, which establishes that the men who rob a mill for a cause are no nobler than those who rob banks for money. Nevertheless, the viewer’s sympathy is with rebel leader Johnny McQueen (James Mason), whom the children in the street emulate in their pretend games of cops and robbers. “It’s probably the best thing that Mason has ever done, and certainly the best film he’s ever been in,” actor Richard Burton observed.

Johnny, who escaped from prison six months ago, has spent the time hiding at the house where Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) and her grandmother reside. Kathleen would be Johnny’s natural mate if he were not wedded to “the organization.” Far from a femme fatale, she is closer to a martyr or saint, embodying the Christian virtue of caritas. Love is the moral absolute that sustains her. There is no evidence that she and Johnny have so much as kissed. Yet she is willing to die for him or with him.

The narrative takes place all in one day. When McQueen and chums go over last-minute details of the heist, Kathleen implores him not to go: “You’re not fit for it.” Another man offers to go in his place: “Your heart’s not in this job, Johnny.” Johnny is rusty; his six months in hiding followed eight months behind bars. But though he is not as steady on his feet as he should be, Johnny is “the chief” and feels he must lead the four-man team.

Naturally something goes wrong. Alarms sound. Johnny has renounced violence, but now he finds himself in a struggle with an armed cashier, and when the guns go off, the cashier lies dead and Johnny has taken a bullet in his left shoulder. No one was supposed to get killed. And Johnny wasn’t supposed to fall out of the getaway car—and be abandoned by his none-too-bright chums fleeing for their lives.

Dazed and bleeding badly, McQueen manages to get to his feet and stumble into a deserted air raid shelter. There is a precious moment of relief when, upon waking, he imagines that he is still in prison—and that the little girl who has entered to recover her lost ball is reassuringly a prison guard to whom he can describe the strange dream from which he has woken. Only when his hand reaches inside his jacket and feels his blood-soaked shirt does the wounded man realize that what he dreamed did happen. He is no longer safely, almost contentedly, in a prison cell. Susceptible to hallucination, hunted by the authorities, he staggers out of the shelter and into the mercy of chance encounters.

Johnny’s progress is like that of a pilgrim on his way through hell to get to purgatory. As gray skies give way to heavy rain, he is seldom fully conscious but constantly on the move. Some citizens take brief pity on him—tending to his wounds, giving him liquor, sheltering him in a pub—before returning him to the streets. Sometimes luck lends a hand, as when Johnny is deposited in the back of a hansom cab, which the police do not inspect on the assumption that the passenger, out cold, is an ordinary drunkard.

The secondary characters are extraordinary. As Penn State media professor Kevin Hagopian puts it in his film notes for the New York State Writers Institute, Odd Man Out is “festooned with gargoyles.” The crazed painter Lukey (Robert Newton) sees in Johnny’s suffering face the perfect model for a masterpiece of portraiture. With the bearing of a genteel bordello mistress, treacherous Theresa O’Brien (Maureen Delany) lets two of the bandits drink her whiskey in one room, while in another she informs the police of their whereabouts. Dim-witted Shell (F. J. McCormick), who collects birds and speaks in avian metaphors, discovers Johnny in a rubbish heap and relishes the reward he will get for turning in this bird with the wounded left wing. But Father Tom (W. G. Fay) persuades Shell that there is a greater reward than money and it is called Faith. When Shell wonders what Faith is, his roommate, a medical student, says, “It’s life.”

Odd Man Out is rife with dualities. Father Tom stands for mercy. A police inspector, who represents justice, distinguishes between the sphere of guilt and innocence, which is his concern, and that of good and evil, which isn’t. The med student ministers to Johnny’s body; the painter labors to capture his soul. As for the politics, most of the people are like the cabman who tells Johnny that he’s neither for him nor against him but can’t afford to get mixed up in his troubles.

Movies that make intelligent use of poetry or scripture hold a charm for me, and when he is being painted, Johnny breaks from his delirium into lucid speech, quoting from I Corinthians (13-11 and 13-2): “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” With a visionary gleam in his eyes, Johnny stands up and raises his right arm: “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

The heavy rain has turned to snow by the time Kathleen locates her man. Johnny: “Is it far?” Kathleen: “It’s a long way, Johnny, but I’m coming with you.” Shots ring out. And then the clock strikes midnight.

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