Monday, July 30, 2018

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)




Dave Burke (Ed Begley) has a plan. The disgraced former New York City cop, disillusioned with the system, has been dreaming of the perfect bank heist. He's been keeping an eye on a small town bank and Burke knows exactly when to strike. He enlists two friends to help him pull off the heist. First there's Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), an ex-con who is trying to make things right with his live-in girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters). Unable to support her financially, he takes Burke up on his offer to make a quick $50k with the robbery. Then there's Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a jazz singer who is deep in debt with his local bookies. He's separated from his wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) and their daughter Eadie and knows he won't be able to come back to old life unless he gets himself out of this mess. But Burke has two problems. Slater is a terrible racist and unwilling to work with Johnny. And Burke has to seek out the head bookie and his team of thugs to put the pressure on Ingram. Burke's plan is solid but can Slater and Ingram stop butting heads long enough to execute the robbery?



Directed by Robert Wise, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is a film noir with a social agenda. The story of racial tension in 1950s America is effectively told through the lens of a bank heist drama.


***SPOILER STARTS***

The final scene of Odds Against Tomorrow delivers a poignant message: in the end we're all the same. After botching the bank heist because Slater (Robert Ryan) wouldn't trust Ingram (Harry Belafonte) with a key, they chase each other to fuel storage center. They meet their demise when a shoot out causes a massive explosion. The police discover their charred remains and any identifier of race or status is completely gone.

***SPOILER ENDS***


Shot on location in Manhattan and upstate New York, the film is gritty and real. Harry Belafonte, who was at the height of his music career, has the lead role and top billing. The movie was produced by his company HarBel Productions, Inc. and released through United Artists. It was remarkable for its time for having an African-American lead actor in a film noir. HarBel Productions was in negotiations with Richard Widmark for the role of Slater but eventually the part went to Robert Ryan. Widmark and Ryan were both perfect for the role so it was no loss either way. Ryan, who was a champion for civil rights, was at first hesitant to play Slater. According to Ryan biographer J.R. Jones, he said "a great many people realize that the characters they see on the screen are fictional or created but there is a substantial group that does not make that distinction." Recognizing the quality of the script and the significance of the movie, Ryan eventually agreed.

Ryan who played an anti-semitic character in Crossfire (1947) is reunited with his co-star in that film Gloria Grahame. Grahame has a small role in Odds Against Tomorrow as the next-door neighbor turned temptress Helen. Her part doesn't quite make sense for the movie except to inject the film with a bit of sex. Grahame and Ryan have a steamy scene when Helen's attempts to flirt with Slater get her more than she bargained for. In one racy shot, Ryan rips open Grahame's robe. According to the AFI,

"Gloria Grahame threatened a $100,000 lawsuit against United Artists, demanding they refrain from using certain photos of her in publicity for the film on the grounds that they were candid and taken without her knowledge. The photographs were taken by co-star Robert Ryan. The outcome of Grahame's demand has not been determined." 

I'd be remiss not to point out some of the fine performances in this film. Beyond Belafonte and Ryan, Ed Begley is adept at playing a character that is equal parts dark and sympathetic. I wanted more from Shelley Winters who is always a delight to watch on screen. I felt like her part was lacking. I was particularly fascinated with Richard Bright's Coco, one of Bacco's bookie thugs who antagonizes Johnny Ingram. There is a sadistic homoerotic tension between the two characters. His character reminded me a bit of Neville Brand's part in D.O.A. (1950). Robert Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson have bit parts as employees of the underground jazz club.

Odds Against Tomorrow was based on William P. McGivern's novel by the same name. It was adapted to screen by screenwriter Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding. Polonsky, an unabashed Marxist and former member of the Communist Party, was blacklisted in 1951. He was named by actor Sterling Hayden and when brought to the HUAC  Polonsky refused to testify. For Odds Against Tomorrow, he used the name of left-wing African-American author John O. Killens as a front. It wasn't until 1996 that the WGA finally gave Polonsky credit for his work on this film. Before being blacklisted, Polonsky had written and directed Force of Evil (1948).

Fans of French cinema need to watch Odds Against Tomorrow particularly for the impact it had on director Jean-Pierre Melville. He was heavily influenced by Wise's film, watched it over 80 times and kept his own 35mm copy. Throughout his career, Melville would make references to Odds Against Tomorrow in his own movies.





Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is available on Blu-Ray from Olive Films. Many thanks to Olive Films for sending me a copy to review.

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