Noir Alley February 27, 2021: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

This is an exercise to write a review each week of the films of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30-40 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a use of the heist-gone-wrong trope with some intriguing twists: it pairs an unrepentant racist (played by Robert Ryan, who excelled at furious, self-loathing men who wrecked their own lives) with a black jazz musician (Harry Belafonte) and a dirty ex-cop (Ed Begley Sr) in a heist plot that would, in theory, solve all their problems. Slater has no job and is being supported by his devoted wife (Shelley Winters) but hates it. Ingram (Belafonte) is deep in hock to a local crime boss because of his gambling addiction, and has put his ex-wife and beloved daughter at risk. And Burke (Begley) has run out of options due to his own corruption; somehow, stealing money from a bank in a small town in upstate New York seems like the best option to him, and he cajoles Slater and Ingram into helping him.

This isn’t a new or innovative story; what makes it work is the dynamics. Slater’s fury at having to work with a Black man who is in almost every way superior to him drives the story forward. His racism gets in the way at nearly every turn, causing him to make choices that jeopardize the heist plan, and make Ingram distrust him. Ingram himself feels trapped into needing to take this job because of threats to his family, and he resents needing to rely on a racist and another white man who doesn’t grasp the threat of the racism. It’s all explosive (kind of literally) and leads to a powerfully tense and upsetting final act.

Belafonte produced this film and was adamant that he wanted a story that dealt realistically with the racism and the heist. There’s a complex and fascinating back story that I don’t have the capacity to detail; you can find it from a variety of film history sites. But the film doesn’t go easy on the complexity of the racist dynamics. Ryan’s character is introduced using a deeply upsetting slur to refer to a little Black girl, and it’s not the last slur he uses. There’s a series of scenes that start with Belafonte discovering his ex-wife working with a multiracial PTA council, and when his ex criticizes him for his gambling and drinking, he goes off on her about “collaborating” with white people in an attempt to be more palatable—he’s not wrong, but his own personal choices complicate the criticism he’s making. It’s powerful language and provocative concepts for a film made in 1959, and could easily be used in a contemporary story with few changes.

But the film is about more than the racist dynamics, and all of it is beautifully woven together by director Robert Wise. If the general public knows Wise’s name, it’s most likely for his work in musicals or maybe The Haunting or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he worked on an enormous range of genres, including film noir, and he understood the tropes and conventions of every genre in a way not many directors manage even today. This film is a feast of shadows and light, moments of tenderness and tension, contrasts between the harsh reality of Slater’s rage and loathing and Ingram’s life as a jazz musician and divorced father. The film is full of sharp lines and harsh contrasts; sometimes it can feel overly obvious, but it never feels pedantic the way some race-focused films can be.

Ryan, Belafonte, and Begley are all excellent, but they’re not the only greatness in this. This may be my favorite of Shelley Winters’ films. She is warm, fiercely devoted to her husband, working two jobs to make sure they get by, but keenly aware that her successes feel like humiliating failures to him. Too many directors took advantage of Winters’ emotional openness and overt sensuality to have her play characters who feel desperate and cheap. Lorry never feels like this; there’s a dignity to her, and deep authenticity in her affection for Slater and her understanding that her professional success feels like a slap in the face to him.

And Gloria Grahame, in a role developed specifically for her by Wise at a time when she was nearly unemployable (thanks to Eddie Muller for explaining this), has a small but powerful presence as Slater’s odd, kinda kinky neighbor who is desperate for a man to look at her as a worthwhile sexual being. The role isn’t vital to the plot, but it adds dimension to Ryan’s character, and provides Grahame the opportunity to demonstrate that her femme fatale style and presence still mattered. In a different time and with a different director, Winters and Grahame might have swapped roles; but they’re both perfect in these parts and add enormously to the texture of the film.

Kim Hamilton as Ruth, Ingram’s ex, is also a strong presence. She clearly still cares for him, but her priority has to be their daughter. In some ways her role is somewhat thankless; she offers the perspective that dealing with racism is a price she has to pay to protect their child, and that her responsibility compared to Ingram’s recklessness is what matters most. But in a film that’s largely focused around the men, she and the other two women demonstrate that the choices of the men are reckless and harmful.

There are also some really excellent scenes set in the jazz club where Ingram performs. The film has a truly spectacular jazz soundtrack by the Modern Jazz Quintet and two sterling songs by Belafonte and Mae Barnes. These scenes give us a real sense of Ingram’s context and life, and contrast with the strangled miserable racism that Slater engages in; Ingram has his problems and poor decisions, but he’s living a life full of music and passion, which is one of the things Slater hates him for.

I had seen this movie once before, when it aired on Noir Alley a couple of years ago, and I found that I remembered beats of it (fitting due to its jazz grounding) but not as much specific scenes. It’s considered one of the last films of the “classic” film noir era, and a major influence on nouvelle vague filmmakers in France. The film’s tone is definitely influenced by the aesthetics of the Beats and the jazz and Black culture it draws from. It’s both a classic noir story, and a glimpse at the post-noir future. It definitely deserves a higher profile among noir fans, in large measure because of its willingness to include race in the story it tells.

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