Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky (as John O. Killens), Nelson Gidding
Based on a Novel by: William P. McGivern
Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley, Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Will Kuluva
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Robert Wise has had a fascinating and hugely successful career. He may not be the household name some of his director contemporaries are, but if you look back at his CV, you’ll see how we cut his teeth as a sound effects editor on some classic mid-thirties films such as two Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, as well as John Ford’s The Informer. He then moved up to the role of editor, cutting classics such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and the great Citizen Kane. After being drafted in by the studio to direct some additional sequences for Orson Welles’ butchered The Magnificent Ambersons, Wise went on to direct his own films. Starting off with B-movies, he proved his worth with classic genre films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. Throughout his career he worked on a bizarrely diverse series of films, many of which were immensely successful, from Somebody Up There Likes Me, to West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s interesting that he’s not as highly regarded as you’d think someone with that many hits under his belt would be. He’s not a director with a clear signature style, so perhaps he’s seen more as a director-for-hire than an auteur, but it’s hard to push him aside when he made films as cherished and popular as he did.
Odds Against Tomorrow is another interesting addition to Wise’s CV. Seeing the director tackle the film noir genre, it’s also especially interesting as it tackles issues of race alongside the usual noir/heist movie tropes. Executively produced by and starring the pop-singer/actor Harry Belafonte, it’s clearly a labour of love for the star, who wanted to make something important and powerful (he was very politically active at the time, supporting the Civil Rights Movement and other humanitarian causes later in life). This makes the film a perfect addition to the BFI’s Black Star season, a selection of films celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors.
Odds Against Tomorrow sees ageing criminal Dave Burke (Ed Begley) approach two very desperate yet very different men to help him pull of a seemingly simple bank job. One man, Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), is a jazz musician with a terrible gambling habit who owes a lot of money to local bigwig Bacco (Will Kuluva). The other man is the racist ex-convict Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), who is frustrated with having to live off the wage of his girlfriend, due to his stubborn old-fashioned beliefs of manhood. Both men are reluctant to be part of the heist as it’s not their usual line of ‘work’, but as the pressure rises, both are forced to get involved. The racial tensions between the two threaten to derail the supposedly straight forward heist though.
It’s a fairly unique take on the heist movie, spending most of its time building tension towards the heist and between the protagonists rather than placing the crime set piece centrally or opening with it. So it’s more of a character-based drama than an action packed thriller. The pair don’t even say yes to the job until half way through and the bank robbery itself takes place in the last 15 minutes or so. The film remains thrilling throughout though, due to the expertly cranked tension and some well drawn characters. Both protagonists are fascinatingly flawed. Johnny is a decent family man for the most part, but he’s not living with his family anymore due largely to the trouble he’d got himself into. Earle has less of a positive side to him, being dangerously short tempered and openly racist, but the film doesn’t make him out to be a total villain, playing on his frustration with losing his lot in life due to his age and mistakes made in the past. Both actors do a great job too. Belafonte isn’t quite as strong as Ryan, but he still has the required charisma and intelligence to pull off his role.
The film is nicely stylish too, beautifully shot by Joseph C. Brun and wonderfully scored by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. It’s truly one of the strongest jazz scores of the era, working perfectly with the film rather than feeling like an excuse to sell soundtracks. There are some nice bold edits used throughout too, making great use of loud sounds to bring you in or out of a scene.
In terms of substance, Odds Against Tomorrow tackles racism in a bold, direct fashion. Many race ‘issue’ films of the time, and some now to be honest, tend to be overly preachy and pussyfoot around the subject, trying to make it clear what side the film is on. Here everything is up front and blunt, and effectively so. The racism is shown to be unpleasant, we’re not needed to be told that it’s bad, we can see for ourselves. Also, rather than offer an unrealistically utopian solution to racism at the end, we follow a positively apocalyptic climax with a brutal metaphor which I won’t describe here as it would spoil the film.
It’s bold, forward thinking film noir of the highest order. More character focused than many, it’s not your typical entry to the genre, but remains as gripping and tense as any plot-driven potboiler. Complete with a killer pay-off, it’s a really solid piece of cinema that deserves more recognition than it gets.
Odds Against Tomorrow is out on October 24th on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. The film looks and sounds very good. There are occasional soft shots and some flecks and lines here and there, but mainly the picture is clean and sharp.
The film is supplemented by plenty of special features. Here’s the list:
– Odds Against Tomorrow post-screening Q&A with Harry Belafonte (2009, 50 mins): an in-depth interview filmed at the Noir City: Chicago film festival
– Adrian Wootton on Odds Against Tomorrow (2016, 30 mins): a newly filmed appreciation
– The Guardian Interview: Robert Wise at the National Film Theatre (1995, 74 mins): a career-spanning onstage interview
– Illustrated booklet with new writing by Tega Okiti, and full film credits
The three main extras are all impressively substantial and there’s next to no overlap. It’s a mightily impressive selection for a relatively lesser known film. It’s a highly recommended release.