At the Movies

Michael Wood

  • Odd Man Out directed by Carol Reed
    September 2006

‘If the world should end tomorrow,’ James Agee wrote in the Nation in 1947, ‘this film would furnish one of the more appropriate epitaphs: a sad, magnificent summing-up of a night city.’ A little earlier and in another paper he had called the film’s second part ‘half-baked’, and what’s interesting is that there is no real contradiction between the points of view. The movie in question is Odd Man Out (1947), reshown at this year’s Edinburgh Festival as part of a tribute to Carol Reed in the year of his centenary (he died in 1976). The NFT recently screened a new print of The Fallen Idol (1948) and a good selection of Reed’s other films for the same reason.

Odd Man Out does make you think of an ending world, not just an ending life; and it is half-baked as well as magnificent. James Mason is Johnny McQueen, a wounded IRA gunman on the run – well, not exactly on the run, since he can hardly walk. He staggers from air-raid shelter to temporary respite in a house; from there to a horse-drawn cab and from there to a junkyard; he finally meets his girlfriend, Kathleen, at the docks, minutes away from his getaway boat, and is shot down by the police. This is actually a sort of assisted suicide, since Kathleen, played by Kathleen Ryan, has fired two shots at the snowy ground, merely to provoke the police response. ‘Is it far?’ the depleted gunman says before they die. ‘It’s a long way, Johnny,’ Kathleen says. ‘But I’m coming with you.’ This is not half-baked, it’s a little overcooked; but in context just right.

Johnny gets some help earlier in the movie, but not much of it is disinterested and none of it is availing. His second in command in the IRA (called the Organisation throughout the film) tries to draw the police away from Johnny and gets arrested. A couple of Englishwomen take him into their house, and are aghast at his wound and at their discovery of who he is. He leaves of his own accord so as not to involve them further. A batty collector of caged birds thinks he can sell Johnny to the church rather than the police, and a struggling artist (ludicrously overplayed by Robert Newton) drags Johnny back to his room in order to paint him, hoping to ratchet up a failing talent by catching the light in a dying man’s eyes.

This is where things go half-baked. In Johnny’s delirium, pictured as a J. Arthur Rank version of Expressionism, the paintings in the artist’s room line up as an audience or congregation, and a priest, Father Tom, hovers among them, trying to make himself heard over an actual conversation between the artist and his friend on the soundtrack. Johnny, remembering the priest from his childhood, says: ‘We’ve always drowned your voice with our shouting.’ A good thing too, we might think, but this is not the right reaction. The implication is that the young men and women of Belfast have strayed from the church’s wisdom, and this reading is confirmed by an extraordinary, brightly lit shot of Johnny suddenly remembering the famous passage from 1 Corinthians – ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity . . .’ We need charity rather than violence; rather than hatred or anger; rather than protest; rather than faith. All these interpretations are possible but a bit heavy and more than a little confused. The shot itself as Johnny recites his quotation, the angle so low that we see a good piece of the ceiling, his face flattened as in a fresco, his left arm bandaged and in a sling, his right arm raised in a kind of crooked salute, suggests something more delicate. Johnny is hearing things and speaking what he is hearing: the sound of his childhood, the old power of language, and a message he himself can’t understand.

There is an obscure argument about charity here, and it appears in some form in all the Carol Reed films I’ve seen. It’s not a religious argument but a radically narrowed human one, and it is well focused earlier in Odd Man Out when the husband of one of the English ladies says Johnny is the chief of the Organisation and she responds: ‘It’s what he is now that I’m thinking about.’ What he is now: a fugitive, a wounded man, a dying man. Charity is remembering this and forgetting everything else. And the amazing ending of the film where policemen and police cars, dark shapes behind torches and headlights, advance slowly through the thickly falling snow towards Johnny and Kathleen, is a kind of diagram of a world without charity in this sense, or a picture of the death of charity. ‘I know no other film image,’ Dai Vaughan says in his BFI Classics book on Odd Man Out, ‘which conveys such utter despair.’ It’s not just that the policemen are doing their job; it’s that their (quite proper) job is to forget what a person is. ‘He belongs to the law now,’ an inspector says of Johnny. As if the law were a god or an unforgiving country. This is the country Kathleen and Johnny secede from into death. And we have seen it again and again in the night city, first in rain, then in snow, always half empty, a place of shadows and mostly turning its face away. The cinematographer on this film was Robert Krasker, who also shot The Third Man – as well as Olivier’s Henry V and Lean’s Brief Encounter, and Reed’s later films Trapeze (1956) and The Running Man (1963) – and the unforgettable look of these desolate streets must owe a lot to him.

There are glimpses of this vision in The Fallen Idol, where policemen never stand still to ask questions. They circle their witness as if he were their prey, their investigation is itself a form of prowling, and in the back of the shot, other, silent detectives move around like wolves. These men are not ill-intentioned, but they do almost arrest an innocent man for murder, and while we are interested in his innocence, our sympathy really goes to him as a hounded man, innocent or not. There is something here of Hitchcock’s theme of the law as necessarily wrong or beside the point – and Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) is a sort of ironic remake of The Lady Vanishes, complete with Margaret Lockwood and Naunton Wayne – but Hitchcock is interested in the nightmare of error rather than the death of charity. The Fallen Idol seems a little dated on a new viewing, its images and plot-points signalled too bluntly and too frequently. How often do we need a high-angle shot from upstairs before we know someone is going to fall? But the film has wonderful performances from Ralph Richardson as an embassy butler who is having an affair with one of the chancery secretaries, from Michèle Morgan as the secretary, and from Sonia Dresdel as the butler’s desperate and evil wife. The story concerns a boy (Bobby Henrey), the child of the absent ambassador, who sees everything and understands almost nothing. Mainly he wants to keep his friend the butler out of trouble, but the more he helpfully lies the worse things get. The police detectives finally figure out what we know to be the truth – the wife fell, she wasn’t pushed – but then at the very last moment, now believing that ‘the truth can’t harm’ his friend, the boy tries to introduce a correct but trivial detail that will undo this happy result. Fortunately, he doesn’t make it. A character in Kafka’s The Trial suggests that all accused men are attractive, and Reed is saying something similar. Or rather suggesting they should be attractive to us, because the accusation makes them who they are now, and nothing else matters.

But the great exposition in Reed’s work of the argument for charity appears in a surprising place: in reverse, in the character and language of Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). In the great scene on the Big Wheel in Vienna, where Orson Welles as Harry Lime clearly contemplates killing his old schoolfriend and says as much, the small movements of Welles’s face tell a very complicated story. Smiling, charming, easy, he makes cynicism sound like everybody’s favourite option. The smile goes momentarily, and you see sheer ruthlessness in the face, even something like hatred. Then the smile is back, and you wonder if you really saw what you think you saw. Cheerfully responding to his friend’s complaints – after all he is pretending to be dead and he has shopped his girlfriend to the Russians – Lime says: ‘Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat. I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.’ Taking us into the apparently religious territory of Odd Man Out, the friend rather querulously reminds Lime that he used to believe in God. Lime is expansive and rueful. ‘I still believe in God, old man, and mercy, and all that. The dead are happier dead.’ He speaks with the tongues of men and of angels, and he defines charity by its perfect absence from his picture of the world.

For many fans of Reed’s films of the 1940s the critical question is how the director of The Third Man could also be the director of Oliver! (1968). A better question – since Oliver! is a pretty good movie, and Pauline Kael, if no other critic, found something of the earlier Reed in it – would be how he could be the director of The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). There must be many answers, including money, 20th Century Fox and sheer professionalism: what movie-makers do is make movies. But something in the package was too much for him, whether it was the script or the studio or Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. Reed fell into the fresco he had used only as an allusion in Odd Man Out. Robert Moss tells us in his book on Reed that the replica of the Sistine Chapel built for the movie in the De Laurentiis studios in Rome was bigger than the original. That seems about right. And even the original is not undercooked.