REAL MEAN CRITTERS

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW

USA 1959

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If Abraham Polonsky mellowed with age, it was not apparent to Elia Kazan. In 1999 Kazan was given an Honorary Lifetime Award by the Hollywood big shots. ‘I hope somebody shoots him on stage,’ said Polonsky. ‘It would provide a thrill on an otherwise dull evening.’ In 1952 Kazan testified to the House Of Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan gave the Committee eight names of people he knew had been members of the American Communist Party. Polonsky appeared before the Committee in 1951 and refused to name others. Polonsky was blacklisted. Kazan buckled, became famous and made prestigious movies.

The name of Abraham Polonsky does not appear on the titles of Odds Against Tomorrow. After he refused to testify to the House Of Un-American Activities Committee the work he was offered was limited and it had to be done under a pseudonym. Polonsky was an unapologetic Marxist. As he aged, he may have had doubts about communism but his views regarding history remained unchanged. For Polonsky capitalism was an economic creed rooted in greed, and notions of utilitarian benefit ignored the heartless destruction that competition and materialism encouraged.   He explained the theory in his noir masterpiece Force Of Evil. The name of Polonsky did return to screen credits but not before 1968 when he co-wrote the script for the marvellous but politically neutral thriller Madigan.

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Robert Wise directed Odds Against Tomorrow. He edited Citizen Kane and that alone should have guaranteed him status amongst intellectuals. Wise, though, was never considered to be cool.  While Orson Welles messed around in Brazil, Wise helped RKO to reshape a poorly received The Magnificent Ambersons. Fans of Welles claimed that Wise and the studio ruined the film. Some gloomy scenes were deleted, and a new ending was added. The critics derided the half happy ending as a travesty. The ending of The Magnificent Ambersons lacks the bravura style of Welles but it is not phoney. The ending is faithful to the book by Booth Tarkington, and there is no evidence that Welles ever intended to contradict a book he regarded as important. Robert Wise had a career that was wide-ranging and included achievements and failures. He was a pragmatic professional liked by the bosses but also a serious liberal who was willing to take artistic risks. He was both modest and ambitious or that was how it appeared.

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Harry Belafonte is now 90 years old. Like Abraham Polonsky, he refused to mellow. Belafonte still debates social issues and he supports young black musicians and artists. His twitter account is a must read and evidence of his continuing energetic activism. Harry Belafonte formed Harbel the film production company in 1957. He preferred acting to singing but the latter gave him financial independence, especially after his Calypso album was the first long playing disc to sell a million copies. Odds Against Tomorrow was the first film to be made by Harbel.  In that film Belafonte plays Ingrams a man who has gambling debts and whose wife wants to integrate with the local PTA. Ingrams sings the blues and plays the xylophone. He wants freedom and the risk of danger. She wants steady and responsible progress. This not unfamiliar tension between the different ambitions of certain men and women is given added intensity by the racial context. Ingrams believes he is the authentic black rebel. We are not convinced. It helps that Belafonte was not a great blues singer. After he sings in the nightclub he is followed by the female hostess. Her vocals have a swing that Ingrams lacks. The hostess looks like a woman who is comfortable inside her skin. She is happy to own a nightclub and mix with both black and white. Ingrams is trying too hard to be the black hipster. He needs his racial identity as a diversion from self-examination.

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Robert Ryan was a great actor who rescued almost every film he appeared in. He appeared as Othello in Nottingham five years before I lived in the city. This is something I regret. He was a thoughtful man and unlike the heavies he played in movies. Ryan was convincing as a bigot and at being angry but this was not his nature. The weight he carried as an impressive human he somehow on screen moulded into damage and malice. In Odds Against Tomorrow he plays Earl the Oklahoma bank robber who hates black people.   Inevitably the character clashes with a blues singer who plays the xylophone. Earl also needs a racial identity that can help him avoid facing his personal failure and self-hatred.   At one point Earl reveals that his family lost his farm in the dust storms.  Earl is the dark side of Tom Joad from The Grapes Of Wrath. Polonsky challenges the faith of Steinbeck in ordinary people and issues a warning about liberal hope.

For the sake of completion Ed Begley has to be mentioned. He was memorable as the bigot in Twelve Angry Men. His tirade against minorities helped Henry Fonda swing the jury to a plea of innocence. Begley had a forceful style, as if there was an engine inside him that was making the blood in his veins bubble. When he walked, he leaned forward or should have done. He talks like a man startled by his own ideas, someone who either has a grievance or a plan. In Odds Against Tomorrow Ed Begley is Burke the ex-policeman who organises the bank raid and recruits Earl and Ingrams. He is the man in the middle and the desperate team player. He mediates between Ingrams and Earl as their racial hatred creates conflict. Burke mentions his spell in prison for graft. He is the believable fall guy, the man sacrificed by the police colleagues that always benefited from his loyalty.

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Most films about bank robberies have tough audacious criminals who create complex plans that depend on vital details and split-second timing. Odds Against Tomorrow has three human failures obliged to rob a bank because the rest of their lives have been so unsuccessful. The robbery involves a bank in a small town, chosen because the security guard has forgotten to retire.  Odds Against Tomorrow resembles the half decent British noir The Good Die Young. Both films are interested in masculine failure and flaws. The women are bruised spectators who settle for diversionary comforts. Gloria Grahame appears in both films. Grahame was the ultimate tough babe with a heart, the woman that any self-regarding male would feel obliged to rescue.   She was not beautiful but she had willpower, character and a challenging smile that beckoned supportive male shoulders towards her. She tempts Earl, and the seduction cranks up the self-hatred inside Earl.

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Odds Against Tomorrow was not a big hit. Audiences were impatient with the attention given to flawed human beings. Neither does the chaos of the bank robbery dovetail into the characterisation in the way it should. The robbers experience bad luck rather than encounter irresistible fate.   The characters, though, stay in the mind, and there is detail in the performances that provokes further thought.  Inside the bank Ryan combines anxiety and tough guy authority.  His eyes dart around what is happening. He is confused and distraught and hates the people inside the bank almost as much as himself.   The scene highlights the anger that has caused trouble for Earl in the past. The world and its strangers bewilder him.  Because he understands no one, Earl applies the filter of racism.

Odds Against Tomorrow does not describe a racist America. Earl and Ingrams belong to the exceptions.  The PTA has mixed membership, the nightclub has black and white hipsters,  Ingrams asks a white mother to look after his daughter and in the opening scene black and white children play together. Despite his reservations about The Grapes Of Wrath, Polonsky regards racism and extreme capitalism as the products of something other than normal humanity. These creeds are created by the wounded and those who need hatred to function.  Although a minority it is those with grievances rooted in excess appetite that secure power and are relentless.   These are the people who will take us all to the Dead End signalled at the end of the film.

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The film may not be an exciting heist movie but there are bonuses to compensate for the missing escapism. Odds Against Tomorrow has marvellous black and white camerawork.  Robert Wise gambled on infrared photography that illuminates the urban spaces of New York. Trees sparkle against bright winter skies. The film helps us not only remember but feel how New York used to be, the confident urban gloss that capitalism for all its faults can provide. The titles are also great, abstract patterns and split letters that suggest social and personal turbulence.  Best of all, though, is the music. The soundtrack was composed by jazz pianist John Lewis and played by The Modern Jazz Quartet. Spare but inventive and thematic the music lifts the atmosphere and connects us to the hope, responsibility and misunderstanding that leads three men to contemplate not just a bank robbery but self-destruction.   The splendid jazz riffs belong to a modern world where complex men and women have schemes but lack purpose.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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