Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

SCORE: 4/5

On many ‘best film noir’ lists, I thought I was going to hate this film due to the “racist white guy and good black guy” aspect of the film. Boy, was I wrong.

Robert Wise’s late-era noir features Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte (a passable but not very good actor), and an excellent Ed Begley, with smaller roles played effectively by Shelly Winters and Gloria Grahame. The arcs of individuals who are all down on their luck, or who otherwise or painfully conscience of what little their lives have amounted to, intersect with the prospect of a bank robbery scheme planned out by a jaded ex-cop (Begley).

In terms of plot and conflict, one has to get over the film having a black jazzman with a serious gambling problem (Belafonte) as its moral center. (This is established rather clumsily via his relationship with his young daughter and his estranged wife, as well as his hesitations to join the caper). But this dimension does not reduce the film to mere racial sermonizing. Sure, Robert Ryan’s cheating ways, general contempt for blacks, and racial insults – delivered in a slight and elusive southern accent (his character comes from Oklahoma) – make him the ‘racist’ cad of the film, but… so what? In one way or another, all the characters have flaws. While they don’t’ have much screen time, Winters’ desperate neediness and Grahame’s lax marital scruples (and desire to be dominated by a ‘bad boy’) make for terrific performances.

Stylistically, metaphors of doom and foreboding creep into the frame and aural experience: the ominous wind that will sweep things away; the balloon that pops; the image of a dilapidated wooden bridge displaying a river that cannot be crossed. There is an uncanniness, an oddness, to this film, of the sort that Wise put to great effect with his masterful horror film The Haunting. The unusual and jazzy score is also quite effective in punctuating manic emotion as well as a quieter sense of foreboding as well. Exterior shots are effectively framed by the architectural largeness of NYC, dwarfing individuals to accentuate what bit players we are on the stage.

In terms of the cinematography, there is more kinetic camera movement than in typical 1950s noirs, and in this regard Odds Against Tomorrow (much like 1958’s Touch of Evil) serves as a transition point between the standard 1940-1950s noir and the more exploratory if not radical stylizations of 1960s and 1970s films.

There’s an almost Shakespearean feel to Odds Against Tomorrow, with an overarching theme that man’s fate is overdetermined by chance and chaos. The film’s final sequence leads to a great and unexpected ending, a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where failure to cooperate leads to a less than optimal outcome for all involved.

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