“I remember. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put way childish things. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass or a inkling cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and though I have all faiths so that I could remove mountains and have not charity… I am nothing.”
‘Odd Man Out’, directed by Carol Reed in 1947, is a British film noir set in Belfast. James Mason stars as Johnny McQueen, the leader of an IRA cell who has escaped from prison and is in hiding. With his gang he ventures out to rob a mill, but in the process he fights with a man, kills him and is badly wounded. The rest of the movie follows Johnny as he drifts through the city, apparently dying, and his gang and his lover Kathleen, played by Kathleen Ryan, as they try to prevent him from dying and to help him evade the police. It’s an unexpected movie with same moral ambiguity of Reed’s later classic ‘The Third Man’. I was expecting the story to be more linear and the style more realist, but instead, Johnny’s stricken journey through Belfast is an opportunity to examine the eccentric characters he meets and for Reed to employ an abstract, almost surreal approach. The supporting characters are vividly drawn, including Robert Newton as a magnificently unstable painter called Lukey who is obsessed with capturing for posterity the dying image of Johnny. As Johnny loses blood and approaches death, he hallucinates, and Reed’s depiction of these point-of-view reality slips are a highlight of the film – images and objects fly around the terrorist and, through Mason’s acting, we are completely drawn in by his confusion and pain. The film it reminded me closest of was Julien Duvivier’s ‘Pépé le Moko’, made ten years before and set in a different city from ‘Odd Man Out’ but with the same balanced depiction of the criminal and police and the same blurring of the two. Indeed, the final scene which sees Johnny and Kathleen racing for a boat out of the city, pursued by the police, is a virtual remake of the ending of the French movie.
Would I recommend it? Yes – with ‘The Third Man’, this demonstrates Reed’s importance to cinema. It’s a film noir set in an unusual place, and also acts as another depiction of the sectarian movement in Belfast, something that is compelling for a viewer brought up in the 1970s and 1980s. I’d watch it in a double bill with ‘Pépé le Moko’ to see if you think I’m right about the parallels.