Noir in the Cold of the Day

There’s a crooked cop. An ex-con. A nightclub singer whose gambling debts have overtaken him. Put these three together, along with a hick bank with too much cash on its hands, shoot it all in moody black and white, and you’ve got your typical noir, right?

Thing is, Odds Against Tomorrow isn’t your typical noir. For starters, there’s an intense racial undertone that few movies, then and now, have addressed with such honesty. Then there’s the people involved: director Robert Wise went from this exercise in bleak to the colorful explosion of West Side Story, another film about racism, but as potent as chasing a whiskey with a glass of skim milk. Star and producer Harry Belafonte deliberately hired blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky to write the script, and asked a friend, the novelist John O. Killens, to be the front… that is, to put his name on the credits instead of Polonsky’s. And of course, there’s Belafonte, who was either so disgusted by the crappy roles Hollywood offered him, or was the subject of a quiet blacklist, that after Odds he didn’t make another movie for over a decade.

What this all means is that Odds Against Tomorrow has an interesting history. But what you’re concerned with is the film itself, so what I have to tell you is very simple: watch this movie.

The details: David Burke (the great Ed Begley) is a cop whose career ground to a halt when he refused to name names to a state crime investigation. He has a half-baked plan to rob a bank in upstate New York, one of those situations where a payroll is due so the place will be flush with cash in small denominations. He asks a friend, an acquaintance really, Okie Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), to join him. Slater’s never caught a break, at least in his mind, and once spent time in the big house for killing a man. Add to this jazz singer/xylophonist (you read that right), Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a fast-living cat who’s lost thousands to a bookie backed by a mobster.

At first, the latter two don’t want any part of the heist. Slater’s big problem is that he’s an unrepentant racist, who thinks little black kids (“pickaninnies” as he calls them) are cute, but the rest of the African-American race can go hell for all he cares. He won’t work with Ingram, simple as that.

Ingram, for his part, isn’t a criminal in the least. He lives on the edge, has a daughter and a divorced wife, and he’s a bit of a louse. For Ingram, robbing a bank’s wrong, and it’s dangerous.

But Burke is wily: he knows the gangster personally and tells him to put the screws on Ingram, so he’ll be forced to take the job. As for Slater, Burke knows that the allure of $50,000 in cash–per person–trumps his bigotry.

Film noir, even at its bleakest, nonetheless looks cool–those dark shadows, femme fatales, the cigarettes and the bars are all pretty glamorous, even when they’re seedy. But Odds Against Tomorrow is cold instead of cool. Director Robert Wise, a real hack in my opinion (he went on to win another Oscar to go with his West Side statuette, for The Sound of Music, for Christ’s sake), used infra-red film to create an icy look to the world. The winter wind rattles the windowpanes, people dress in shambles, and the women look tired, old, defeated. Shelley Winters, one of my all-time favorites, plays Slater’s girlfriend, and the great Gloria Grahame, perhaps the queen of noir, is on hand to play a shrill neighbor who looks worse for wear.

But Belafonte, Polonsky, and Wise also made this film into a study of racism, and it’s surprisingly modern. Usually films of this era are didactic, preachy, like No Way Out (with Sidney Portier and Richard Widmark as a kindly doctor and racist thug) or In the Heat of the Night, a good movie (again with Portier), but with its lessons thumping away like kettle drums in a Fourth of July parade.

It seems to me like the temptation would be great to make Belafonte’s Ingram a bit misguided, but really a misunderstood, great guy who in the end doesn’t rob the bank. He is actually a decent man, but the truth is that Belafonte was brave enough to make his character complex, one of those divorced good dads who takes his kid out and is in no way responsible. He gambles, he has affairs, he has to drive nice cars and is a louse.

On the other hand, Robert Ryan’s racist Slater is a man of some feeling. His racism is inexcusable and is everyone’s undoing. But Polonsky and Ryan refused to make him a mere caricature, instead painting Slater as a man who’s been broken over the years, by society, by fate, by missed opportunity (often by his own making, which he readily admits.)

Odds Against Tomorrow seems to wallow in pain, each character destitute, counting the many ways in which they’ve failed, bitter at the world but almost more bitter in the knowledge that much of their ruination is their own damn fault. Pain is everywhere–this is one of the few films, much less films noir, in which people who get slugged or shot communicate how much that actually physically hurts.

This scene sums it up. Ryan’s bringing back his girlfriend’s purple dress from the cleaners, which she wears in her job as a hostess at a restaurant. The fact that she’s the breadwinner and he’s reduced to getting her dress eats at him. Slater turns into a bar for a quick drink, and runs into a young soldier is trying to show off his chops.

The look on Ryan’s face says it all: he can’t win for trying. He was wrong, but what else was he going to do, let the kid punch him? Yes, that’s a very young Wayne Rogers, of TV’s M*A*S*H, whose reaction almost made me double over in pain. And when Slater comes home and takes it out on Shelley Winter’s Lorry, again, this pain is palpable. He knows he’s wrong, knows he’s mean, but we’ve all been there, pushing that pent-up hate and anger on someone we truly love.

Wise and Polonsky take all the time in the world to enrich the motivations of these characters, something that’s typically set aside as a MacGuffin, a device used only to move the plot along. Really, we don’t care all that much why the characters want their money in The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, etc. Here, the heist itself takes up maybe twelve minutes of time, and it’s so poorly executed (by the characters–it’s brilliantly directed) that it seems totally human, the work of men who’ve never done anything like this in their lives. Rather than close this film with an exciting robbery that goes awry (there was a Hays Code after all) Odds Against Tomorrow really makes this thing look awful, from the way it unravels to the old farts working late at the bank for little pay.

This, and its strange closing line that makes this noir like a wicked fable, is the perfect punctuation to a movie about broken souls, bitter men who believe life has beaten them down, but who also know, deep down, that they’ve actually beaten themselves. It’s sad that this brutally honest film has not been given its due–I’d almost say that if Belafonte had to give up ten years in the picture business to make Odds Against Tomorrow, well, he should be damn proud.

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