Sunday, 24 June 2018

NOIR WATCH 2018: Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)

Johnnie McQueen (James Mason) is the leader of an IRA cell in Northern Ireland. After escaping from prison six months ago, he has been holed up in the home of Kathleen (Kathleen Sullivan), a woman who secretly loves him. He is now planning to rob a mill to finance his group.

After so much time out of action, Johnnie's skills are rusty. The robbery goes well, but he is caught in a scuffle during the escape and ends up abandoned in the middle of the street, with a bullet in his shoulder.

Alone and delirious, Johnnie now has to figure a way out of the city before the authorities hunt him down.

Directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), and starring James Mason, Odd Man Out uses the context of Northern Ireland to focus on - as the opening crawl states too plainly - the way that human beings act when stuck between duelling loyalties. Despite the omnipresent threat of violence, people are willing to provide a modicum of help, but that help is dependent on their weighing of what they have to gain or lose.

Details are kept vague - we never hear the IRA referred to by name, and there is very little exposition about the history of Northern Ireland. While there is probably a commercial consideration (and censorship) behind this choice, it ends up reinforcing the movie's focus on how this context affects the central characters.

As Johnnie, James Mason is wonderfully muted. Johnnie is a character who spends the first 15-20 minutes trying to prove his masculinity, and then spends the rest of the movie as a semi-verbal object, a MacGuffin that passes from one set of characters to another. I was fascinated by how low status the performance and the character is - Johnnie is a character in a state of emotional and physical decline, and there is no turning point.

From the first scene, Mason conveys McQueen's dulled prowess. We are introduced to him in a bedroom, sitting on a bed and drinking tea. While his dialogue and actions establish McQueen as a professional, there is a lack of polish and weight to Mason's delivery, as though he is playing a role he does not quite believe. When his lackeys question his readiness, Mason's forcefulness feels like an overcompensation.

Reed juxtaposes the intimacy and cosy domesticity of this scene by cutting to a series of tilted, tracking shots of city streets. The shots are given no direct source - the filmmakers cut to Johnnie and his men in a car, heading toward the mill.
These moving shots feel like they are meant to be Johnnie's POV, as he struggles to acclimatise to an outside world he has been kept from Johnnie's weakness is further reinforced by Reed's staging of the gang's arrival at the mill.

While the other men jump out of the car, Johnnie has to get out on the far side of the car and walk around the boot. To make it more awkward, progress is interrupted a middle-aged woman who crosses his path. Johnnie has to stop in his tracks, and wait for her to pass.

Once Johnnie's agoraphobia gets the better of him, he loses all sense of agency (and his place as the central focus of the diegesis). Johnnie becomes a MacGuffin, and a signifier to the people he meets: a lover; a fighter; a martyr; a criminal; of what it means to do the right thing. It's not so much a suspense thriller about a man trying to avoid his fate as it is the story of a community struggling to figure out what they will do when such an individual comes into their corner of the world.

As Johnnie's predicament grows more dire, he becomes associated with entropy, illness and death. This is liberalised in the case of Lukey (Robert Newton), an artist obsessed with capturing intense emotional states on canvas. When he stumbles upon Johnnie, he sees his chance to capture death.

While Lukey fails in his task, his designation of Johnnie as a dying man holds: Johnnie  is doomed. Even when he is reunited with Kathleen, he is not given a reprieve - he goes from doomed fugitive to doomed lover, a new status orchestrated by Kathleen as British soldiers surround them.
In the end, Odd Man Out's brilliance lies not in its ground-level view of a wanted man in the middle of a complex geopolitical situation, but how people living in such a climate figure out how to either deal with it, or shut it out.



Elevator to the Gallows

No comments:

Post a Comment