Tuesday 14 November 2023

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

While it may come along at the very end of the classic film noir cycle, Odds Against Tomorrow is highly recommended to fans of those movies. It’s about one great big score, of course, it’s about tension between the robbers, and it’s a heavy-handed, but well-intentioned, condemnation of racism.

Ed Begley plays an ex-cop, Burke, who thinks he has a foolproof robbery plan. He cannot do it alone though, so he enlists the assistance of Slater (Robert Ryan). He also needs a black man in the team, as the plan relies on a guard opening the door to the African American gentleman delivering some food, so he brings in Ingram (Harry Belafonte). Both Slater and Ingram have debts to pay off, which means both are highly motivated to get the job done right, but Slater continues to be perturbed while he has to work alongside a black man.

Based on a novel by William P. McGivern, Odds Against Tomorrow was adapted into film form by Nelson Gidding and Abraham Polonsky (blacklisted at the time, therefore credited as John O. Killens). While the robbery itself makes up the third act of the movie, as you would expect, the majority of the runtime is a look at two damaged characters who don’t see themselves as having any other choices on their path through life. Luck hasn’t been with them, which hasn’t stopped them gambling, so this big score is needed to set them free from misery of their own making.

Both Ryan and Belafonte are excellent in their lead roles, both carrying different weights on their shoulders as they resolve to do whatever it takes to improve their lot in life. Ryan allows the prejudice to emanate from his character in waves, no edges softened or ugliness hidden, and that makes him even more unsavory than your typical noir lead, but he’s counter-balanced by the pragmatism of the very charismatic, but hot-headed, character played by Belafonte. Begley is also very good, spending a lot of his time as a buffer between the two men that he needs to stay focused on the job in hand. Will Kuluva and Richard Bright provide extra “motivation”, and there’s time for some solid work from Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame, and Kim Hamilton, among others.

It is far from the best of film noir, in many ways, but it also has a hell of a lot to enjoy. The direction from Robert Wise is as solid and straightforward as usual (Wise is a name I always feel is far-too-rarely mentioned when discussing the absolute greats of cinema, he has at least three masterpieces to his name in three different genres), the pacing allows viewers to enjoy the fleshing out of the characters as they also see the robbery plan being hatched, and the friction between Ryan and Belafonte keeps simmering away until the point when it inevitably rises up to worsen a bad situation.

The very end may be a bit eye-rollingly clumsy, like a moral punchline underlining a central message of the movie, but it doesn’t undo everything that came along before it. All in all, wonderful stuff.


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