Saturday, May 19, 2007

Odd Man Out

When I was a teenager I bought a book called Three British Screenplays. The film scripts in it were Brief Encounter, Scott of the Antarctic, and Odd Man Out. I’d never managed to catch up with any of the movies themselves until I recently came across a DVD of Odd Man Out. It’s extraordinary what odd films turn up on DVD. This is a wonderfully clear copy of the film, no problems with the visual or audio side of it as there often is in these lesser known movies. It’s exactly as Carol Reed intended, with those marvellous light and shadow shots, rainy streets reflecting the street lamps, the snow showing up pure white towards the end. And then there are the faces, a mixture of Dickensian eccentrics, like Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, F J McCormick (one of the Abbey Theatres great stars) and Joseph Tomelty, and the soon-to-be Hollywood stars: James Mason, Robert Beatty – and Dan O’Herlihy. Fay Compton makes a brief but strong appearance, and hidden amongst the uncredited actors are Wilfred Brambell, a very young Dora Bryan, Eddie Byrne, Geoffrey Keen and Noel Purcell.
It’s an odd story: Mason is the leader of a group of Irish nationalists who gets wounded in a robbery and spends the rest of the day and night on the streets, sometimes protected by those who care, sometimes neglected and sometimes about to be sold for the £1000 pound reward. He’s in danger of discovery from the police, and is nearly left for dead more than once. Two women take him in, briefly, and attend to him, a cabbie inadvertently takes him through the police patrols, and after being discovered by a conniving vagabond, he winds up escaping into a pub, being protected by the publican for a time, caught up by an alcoholic artist who wants to ‘paint his dying eyes’ and then finally is rescued by his girlfriend – for a last moment or two.
The atmosphere throughout is of a world that’s gone: children playing out on the streets until all hours and a gang of rough uneducated boys begging for a penny; cabbies driving horse carriages; a double decker bus crammed with people so that the bus breaks down; people living in derelict conditions and police on every corner; a middle-aged wealthy woman running some gambling house and betraying two of the nationalists to the police; a pub so full that there are half a dozen barmen.
It’s a film packed with detail: as much is going on in the background of some shots as in the foreground, and every shot is a delight to the eye. It’s almost surrealist visually; a lot of the lighting isn’t natural, and isn’t intended to be. As the night creeps on things get more and more strange, so that the nighttime outside scenes are obviously shot in the studio (even to the pretend trains rushing past in the background of one set, signified only by the smoke trail and the hoot of the engine) and the house where the vagabond, the doctor who’s missed his calling and the artist live is a great ramshackle place that’s once been the home of someone wealthy. The streets are no longer filmed on location as they were in the day time scenes, but have an increasingly Caligari feel about them.
The acting is on a consistently high level, and the direction of the actors is another area in which there’s attention to detail. Mason has a difficult role to play as someone who’s only half with it most of the time; Beatty makes what he can of a loyal partner in the group but vanishes part way through the story; Cusack is as full of beans as always; Elwyn Brook-Jones makes the most of his enormous eyes and screwed up face; W G Fay plays an apparently dull-witted priest who turns out to be sharper than anyone around him, and so the list goes on. Only Kathleen Ryan, as the girlfriend, disappoints. It’s possible that she was supposed to play her namesake Kathleen as a rather downhearted girl, disappointed that the rebellion is taking so long and is about to take her man down with it. But she sticks to this one note throughout, and isn’t really believable when she claims she would shoot her boyfriend rather than let him be taken to prison – and shoot herself too.
Well worth waiting for after all these years.
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