•A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series takes you back to 1959 for the 60th Anniversary of legendary filmmaker Robert Wise’s heist, noir, thriller drama “Odds Against Tomorrow”.
Robert Wise is a filmmaker of legendary proportions. He has had a fascinating and hugely successful career, unfortunately he isn’t as respected a filmmaker as he deserves. Starting his career off as the film editor for Orson Welles cinematic masterpiece “Citizen Kane”. Wise moved on to directing and started his filmmaking career with B-movies, he proved his worth as a filmmaker with classic genre films such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.
Throughout his career he directed a diverse series of films, which were immensely successful, from “Run Silent Run Deep”, “West Side Story”, “The Sound of Music”, “The Andromeda Strain”, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, “The Sand Pebbles” and “The Haunting”. It’s interesting that he’s not as highly regarded as you’d think being someone with that many hits under his belt, even from winning two Oscars for Best Director for “Sound Of Music” and “West Side Story”. He’s not really a director with a clear signature style, so perhaps why he’s not considered an auteur, but it’s hard to push him aside when he made films as cherished and popular as he did.
In 1959 while he was completing the filming of his Oscar-winning productions of “I Want to Live!” and “West Side Story”. Wise directed his last black and white film with a standard aspect ratio. He became known for his cinemascope widescreen format with “West Side Story”. Wise’s noir thriller “Odds Against Tomorrow” is an interesting addition to Wise’s filmography. “Odds Against Tomorrow” has the director tackling issues of race alongside the noir and heist movie tropes.
Actor and musician Harry Belafonte stars in the title role, bringing the first film-noir with a black protagonist. Belafonte had bought the rights to the novel written by William P. McGivern and had his own production company HarBel Productions, produce the film. It was one of the first productions from his company. When director Robert Wise came on board to direct, he suggested the script be given a tougher edge. Screenwriters Nelson Gidding and the then blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, who used the name of Belafonte’s friend John O. Killens as a screenwriting credit, worked on changing the previously written optimistic ending. In 1997, the Writers Guild of America officially restored Polonsky’s credit.
“Odds Against Tomorrow” revolves around Dave Burke (played by Ed Begley Jr’s father Ed Begley Sr.) who is a middle aged ex-cop, who was kicked off the New York force after 30 years for refusing to rat on his crooked colleagues to a crime commission. He lives with his German shepherd in a depressing hotel and has schemed to cross over to the other side of the law and make one big score to retire, by robbing an upstate bank in a small town. He recruits the unstable war veteran and ex-con Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), who served time for manslaughter, over to his apartment to offer him a partnership on the heist. Slater agrees when Burke tells him it’s an easy job with at least $50,000. The third partner is another amateur thief, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a club jazz singer with a big gambling problem, who owes the openly homosexual mobster Bacco (Will Kuluva) $7,500 and doesn’t have any means to pay it. When Bacco threatens to harm his ex-wife and young daughter unless he pays, the reluctant Johnny feels there’s no choice but to do the heist. The piece of cake heist goes bad even before it begins when Earl shows he has an open hatred for blacks that causes an uneasy friction between him and the African American Johnny. The bank robbery is doomed to fail for ‘personal’ reasons and not because of some breakdown in the plan or because of some great detective on their trail.
“Odds Against Tomorrow” is as much of a character study as a heist flick. The climax turns conventional with a shootout, that leads to a piercing zinger of a closing line with a brilliant and shocking ending reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s 1949 James Cagney gangster flick “White Heat”. Both films have an ending that is truly apocalyptic, total obliteration and a damnation of biblical proportions.
The three male leads are exceptional, Belafonte is the best he has ever been. It was a labour of love for Belafonte, who not only bought the rights but executive produced the film. He wanted to make something important and powerful, as he was very politically active at the time, supporting the Civil Rights Movement and other humanitarian causes later in life. As the bigoted Earl Robert Ryan was often cast as angry, misanthropic characters who occasionally expressed themselves through violence. Off screen, Ryan was a compassionate activist who was committed to liberal causes like the ACLU. Ed Begley Sr comes out as solid as the scheming, cold-blooded corrupted cop and mastermind behind the robbery.
“Odds Against Tomorrow” is best categorized as a noir-ish heist movie. Unlike most heist movies “Odds Against Tomorrow” shows little interest in the planning and mechanics of it’s heist. What really distinguishes the film is it’s concentration on what goes wrong beforehand, so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of 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.
French director Jean-Pierre Melville credited the film with being a formative influence on his work and made references to it in his films. He also owned a 35mm copy and has reportedly watched it more than 80 times. It remains a neglected masterpiece, it is also a testimony to Robert Wise’s versatility. For the film in some scenes, Wise used infra-red film to give it a slightly distorted feel. The film remains thrilling throughout due to the expertly cranked tension and some well drawn characters. “Odds Against Tomorrow” is one of the best heist gone wrong films ever made.