Monday, 20 November 2006

Odd Man Out (1947)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 27th August 2006.

Odd Man OutOne of the reviewers over at The Internet Movie Database describes Odd Man Out, released to stores in a digitally restored 'special edition' tomorrow, as 'one of the most beautifully directed and photographed films I've ever seen'. I'd add 'scripted' and 'acted' to that list, and it's disappointing that Jurgen Muller's Best Movies of the 40s (which, until now, I've been using as my guide to old movies I should make an effort to see) doesn't include it in its best of 1947. Odd Man Out is an absolute gem of a film that stands up well today, and is definitely a highlight of not just the year it was released, but that whole 'film noir' decade as a whole.

On the surface the plot wouldn't seem to have a lot going for it: James Mason plays the idealistic leader of an 'illegal group' in Ireland, who in the opening scenes gets involved in a robbery where he accidentally kills a man and is himself shot. The film charters his journey as friends, enemies and the police try and close in on the seriously wounded man. While this might appear to be a film about Mason's character, Johnny, it's really an excuse to show us the lives and behaviours of all the different characters he encounters, shown through their reactions to his plight. It's full of wonderful comedic characters and performances, with a raft of mainly unknown Irish actors in cameo roles. As a Doctor Who fan of the William Hartnell era it was a real treat to catch the actor's engaging performance as a much younger man here, where his infamous 'hand manipulations' to ensure the viewer's eye is drawn to his face in close-ups when playing the Doctor are just as much in evidence in a bar scene. This is a scene where an older, slightly mad vagrant who's already been built up in the story was in danger of stealing the scene, and Hartnell was clearly having none of it!

The script cleverly defuses the IRA (who are never named) politics by showing Johnny as someone who, although the leader of his cell, is in serious doubt about the way his organisation is going. Before the crime is committed he is accused of having gone soft, and expresses disapproval that an accomplice is carrying a gun, advising him to make sure he doesn't use it. Later on the lead British policeman trying to hunt him down is shown as a man of equal integrity, honour and sympathy towards his fellow man: those hoping for propaganda for this cause or that cause are likely to be disappointed. Odd Man Out is not a film about Northern Ireland politics, but a film about the wonderfully diverse people of Ireland - and it works beautifully as such, moving from one fantastic cameo character scene to the next, each perfectly pitched and perfectly placed to tell a little story in its own right, while heightening the overall suspense and tension.

The lighting and 'film noir' cinematography are beautiful, and shown to their best advantage in this digitally restored print which is never less than stunning. The dialogue never seems stilted or dated, and one finds oneself wishing a tiny proportion of today's Hollywood's output were as intelligently written and directed as this.

The extra's are equally fascinating, if for all the wrong reasons. Readers of my Lord of the Rings weblogs will have sensed my incredulity at the behaviour of fans and 'amateur' journalists and film-makers when following the progress of the cast and crew of that movie franchise at various events - it's a cattle market of inanity, naivety and stupidity and for the cast and crew clearly not the glamorous exercise most would like to believe. But the scenes I personally witnessed are as nothing compared to the complete incompetence revealed in the 1972 interview with James Mason featured as an extra on this DVD. The interview is presented as 'unedited rushes', and what a fascinating story they have to tell. Every time Mason starts to give an interesting, brutally honest insight into his perceptions of Hollywood, or tries to discuss details of his experiences with Preston Sturgess he will be interrupted and stopped by a seemingly totally incompetent lighting/sound man, only to then have the interviewer move onto a completely different question as if the anecdote that had been about to be delivered couldn't possibly be of any interest. As such the rushes serve as a fascinating, if incredibly frustrating, insight into just how incompetent even the 'professional' programme makers can be. The snatched glimpses of Mason's face as these debacles ensue, alternating between bemused incredulity and simmering fury, are a joy to behold and lesser men would have got up and walked out (I know I would!). Allegedly filmed for a TV programme called 'All our Yesterdays', one suspects that if a programme of that title ever got screened it will have featured nothing from Mason, despite the intriguing insights he was apparently ready and willing to give!

The only other extra on the DVD itself is an hour long TV documentary from 1972 where James Mason revisits his home town of Huddersfield. It's a fun piece, if of no direct relevance to the film itself, and demonstrates just how much Michael Kitchen (best known away from his constant TV narration duties, as the detective Foyle in the series Foyle's War) has 'borrowed' from Mason - the two are audible dead-ringers for each other. Essentially this is a documentary about the old vs the new. An anecdote about the 'scandal' of workers being paid to play cards really struck home, having had a very similar conversation with one of those card players/car workers at Ford Motor Company just a few months ago. Some things never really change!

The 'Special Edition' packaging for the DVD is rounded off with an excellent essay giving solid background information about the film, its director and cast, and is illustrated with movie stills in 20-page booklet form. It just shows how much most of the 'Piracy is killing us' film companies are ripping us off with giving not so much as a chapter index leaflet, when a DVD like this can retail online for a price of just £10.89. At that price this DVD is a complete steal. Highly recommended!

Odd Man Out screencap

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