Even after the Second World War, the British Isles, specifically Northern Ireland, weren’t a much less dangerous place. During the war, hostilities between British loyalists and Irish republicans continued, as the IRA began campaign of attacks on Northern Ireland that lasted from 1942 to 1944. Some IRA members even collaborated with the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s intelligence agency, in hopes that German strikes against Britain would strengthen their efforts. Though Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out leaves the IRA and the city of Belfast nameless, the references made are quite obvious.
In Reed’s adaptation of F.L. Green’s novel of the same name – Green co-wrote the screenplay, as well – the group leader of a terrorist organization, played by James Mason, is left abandoned by his crew after a botched job, forced to wander injured through the night evading capture by local authorities. From a political perspective, Reed’s film noir is an interesting, if not perplexing one. In many ways, this isn’t nearly a simple condemnation of the IRA and its doings. Appropriately, however, Reed and Green display a distinct pessimism for the future that lies ahead.
First of all, Reed’s film came during a period of significant change for British cinema. Much like the U.S. had the Motion Picture Production Code as the main censorship body, England had the British Board of Film Censors, which still exists today as the British Board of Film Classification. Both commonly held that instances of violence could easily corrupt audience members, and so filmmakers were required to handle such scenes with care. And though the gradual post-war liberalization of British society would lead to controversies of depictions of violence beginning in the 1950s, Odd Man Out is a decent example of where it might have gotten started.
By 1940s standards, the violence of Odd Man Out is pretty shocking, and even a bit jarring at times – British censors called special attention to its explosive finale. But why might have British censors been accepting of such new volatility? Well, most of the violence committed falls upon our IRA-like protagonists; so much like American gangster films of early Hollywood had to ensure their protagonists received their comeuppance by the final frame, it’s likely that the BBFC felt the same about IRA members and collaborators being a film’s main characters. Such attitudes were likely meant to strengthen public opinion in the British Isles against the IRA and Irish republicanism as a whole, and yet, Reed’s film doesn’t come across as the thinly veiled propaganda such motivations suggest.
Yes, most of the characters associated with the unnamed organization in Odd Man Out come to a terribly violent end, but for some, there isn’t any lack of compassion. Those who Reed, Green and the film’s audience aren’t meant to have any sympathy for are done away with inside the first 30 minutes or so, but for Mason’s Johnny McQueen and Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), Reed, a then former Captain of the now-defunct Royal Army Ordinance Corps, finds a modicum of respect.
Philosophically, however, it could be due to each character’s desire to leave behind the life of crime they’ve either lead or aided in leading, but the benevolence shown to both is much greater than most would have anticipated such people to receive. Mason’s Johnny is ailed with psychological trauma that often forces him to reconsider his motives, and the tag team of Robert Krasker (cinematography) and Fergus McDonell (editor) effectively convey the chaotic uneasiness guilt brings with quick editing and mobile canted angle shots. Blocking wise, Kathleen is often placed in a position of vulnerability, and the understanding shown by the primary police inspector towards her forces the audience to recognize her not as an accessory to terrorist acts, but rather a loving friend.
This sort of kindhearted look to characters meant to be perceived as enemies conflicts with the cynical outlook that defines film noir, but never fear, for Reed and Green have a much darker outlook in mind. More than Johnny and Kathleen’s paths toward their demise, Odd Man Out is about the general population and where they stand in the midst of this political turmoil.
The snapshots we are shown of the common public demonstrate either a lack of opinion one way or the other or differing thoughts entirely. Everyone the wounded Johnny comes across finds themselves in a stirring debate as how best to handle him, sometimes causing utter chaos. It’s that lack of unity in frame of mind that suggests a future resembling what has continued to define the reputation of Northern Ireland in our current reality, in addition to relations between Catholics and Protestants residing there. The film’s plot already suggests the idea of impending doom from the moment Johnny’s shoelace snaps in the opening scene; this sort of message compounds that feeling in a manner that has likely given Odd Man Out extra impact as time has passed.
In such an impressive filmography, Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out may stand out on aesthetic and technical merit, but its intriguing, sometimes conflicting politics intertwined in a narrative grounded in realism has done more to contribute to its legacy than anything else. Once again, we have a prime example of a film doing justice to the source material thanks to the original author writing, or in this case co-writing the screenplay. Seems like this should happen more often, no?