Crime and Punishment

Carol Reed, Odd Man Out, 1947, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Left: Johnny McQueen (James Mason). Right: Johnny McQueen (James Mason) and Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan).

PERHAPS BECAUSE IT GOES AGAINST genre expectations, Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), which crowns Film Forum’s Brit-noir season, is less often revived than Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Lacking the menace and harshness of most postwar British crime thrillers, the earlier film drifts along on a wave of fatalism and quasi-religious symbolism.

IRA leader Johnny McQueen (James Mason) accidentally kills a man in unnamed Belfast and is himself shot when he and his men bungle a robbery; the gang botches its getaway, too, and Johnny is stranded on the street. He lurches around the city for the next twelve hours, a doomed soul trapped in a noir labyrinth expressionistically lit by Robert Krasker.

Johnny is a passive hero whose role is to reveal the selfishness, venality, or kindness of others. He is helped by two Englishwomen practicing their nursing skills. A Dickensian collector of caged birds (F. J. McCormick) plots to sell him. A publican hustles to get him out of the way. An artist (Robert Newton) desperately tries to paint his dying moments. Then there is the unsmiling young woman (Kathleen Ryan) who loves Johnny, and the gentle Father Tom (W. G. Fay) who reasons with her. Fay and McCormick, magnificent here, were players with the Abbey Theatre; neither lived out the year.

Among the most evocative images are those of Johnny lying in a bathtub in a scrapyard as the snow falls and trains thunder past. What’s going through his head in these moments is hard to say. Since he had vision problems during the heist, it’s clear something is disturbed. Even his moments of clarity may be experienced surrealistically, as when he sees in the beer bubbles on a pub table the faces of those he’s encountered in the film. Hallucinating in the artist’s studio, he sees portraits form into a congregation with Father Tom, his boyhood priest. Johnny rises, and the extreme low angle endows him with power for the only time on his journey as he quotes Corinthians 13:2: “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

Making an IRA leader sympathetic must have been risky in Britain in 1947. Mason did it by making Johnny a soft-spoken pacifist in the scene in which he plans the robbery, and through his Christlike stoicism. He martyrs himself for man, not for “the Organization,” though some brave programmer should one day pair Odd Man Out with Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) for both their differences and their affinities.

Odd Man Out plays September 4–17 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.