Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) has been described by some as the "last true film noir." Visually, most of the picture contradicts this, but noir iconography permeates much of the film, particularly in the form of star Robert Ryan's self-destructive bigot, which lends the film its topical racial subplot.
Disgraced ex-cop Burke (Ed Begley, Sr.) plans the sure-fire robbery of a small town bank in upstate New York. He partners with a racist war veteran / ex-con convicted of manslaughter, Earl Slater (Ryan), and a black jazz musician, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), whose chronic gambling has him deep in debt to the mob.
The first half of the picture focuses on the desperation that leads Slater and Ingram to accept Burke's offer. The mob is hounding Ingram for the thousands he owes them, and the picture illustrates, sort of, how his addiction to gambling has destroyed his relationship with his upwardly mobile wife (Kim Hamilton) and young daughter. Slater, meanwhile, is a self-loathing, kept man, unemployed and living off the earnings of a lonely woman, Lorry (Shelley Winters).
Odds Against Tomorrow uncomfortably straddles the genres of noir and '50s social commentary, resulting in a mixed bag of a picture. The look of most of the film, shot by Joseph C. Brun, is excellent, anticipating the style of later crime dramas like In Cold Blood (1967) more than the great noirs of the 1940s and early-'50s.** Shot entirely on location in New York, and on the soundstages of Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx, the film has a wonderful East Coast authenticity to it. In 1959 it was still rare to shoot a major film like this entirely outside Hollywood, but Brun and director Robert Wise take full advantage of the opportunity, capturing the milieu of both everyday living in New York City, and life in a small upstate town. Similarly, the picture is closer to '60s dramas with its relatively graphic violence (the final shoot-out) and frank sexuality. Of the latter, there is a casually gay Mafioso in a supporting part, and in one scene very daring for its time, Slater screws a neighbor (Gloria Grahame) turned on by Slater having killed a man with his bare hands.
During the robbery, which doesn't occur until the last minutes of the picture, Brun and Wise shift to an almost classical noir style. The caper itself is cleverly simple, and Wise's background as an editor, here working with the great Dede Allen, she at the beginning of her long career, is a major plus as the cutting of these scenes generates considerable tension. (spoilers) Conversely, the very end of the film is a limp steal of the climax to White Heat (1949), and that's followed by an absurdly symbolic, heavy-handed epilogue which severely damages the picture.
Oddly, of the three leads, the performance and character that comes of best is the least flashy, the role played by Ed Begley. One would have expected his crooked ex-cop to be even more repugnant than Ryan's veteran, perhaps a variation of his character in 12 Angry Men (1957), but Begley plays him with an understated nervousness, a man trying to appear calmer than he is to deflate the hair-trigger tension between Ryan and Belafonte. In one of the film's best scenes, the three wait outside the town at a nearby lake during the hours before the robbery. Belafonte's character stumbles upon a baby doll floating in the water, while Ryan's Slater contemplates shooting a rabbit that stares innocently at him. Begley, meanwhile, silently tosses pebbles at a tin can. The actor's expressive eyes convey all of Burke's fears and hopes rather more effectively than either Ryan or Belafonte.
It's a shame neither lead is used to their full potential. Belafonte was stuck in roles like this and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (also 1959), which likewise introduced weighty racial issues only to dance around them in peculiar ways. Here, the filmmakers, in an apparent effort to keep Belafonte likeable, seem reluctant to depict Ingram's gambling addiction (and its personal cost) as honestly as they might have. Worse, the racial tension is unconvincingly one-sided, presumably for the same reasons. Ingram's sudden decision to pursue a fleeing Slater when the robbery goes bad comes off as a surprise. For Ryan, truly one of the screen's all-time great actors, Slater isn't nearly as well defined as the many similar roles he had played earlier in his career. We feel his frustration but never really understand it, and against Belafonte's overly sanitized Ingram, the racial aspects of the film ultimately fall flat.
One important point concerning the screenplay: Odds Against Tomorrow was written by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding. Polonsky was blacklisted at the time, and originally received no screen credit. (His work was credited to a front, John O. Killens). As with the DVD of Bridge on the River Kwai and possibly others, this version has "restored" Polonsky's name.
The decision to do this was, presumably, made at the behest of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), but whoever is responsible, such re-writing of movie history is, in this reviewer's opinion, a well-intentioned but singularly inappropriate response. It would be completely understandable before the picture to include a card stating something along the lines of, "Abraham Polonsky co-wrote Odds Against Tomorrow, but was blacklisted and credited here as John O. Killens." But to simply insert Polonsky's name into the credits without explanation is, really, an injustice to blacklist victims in general and Polonsky in particular. Presenting the film in this manner is to suggest, particularly for audiences unaware of the blacklist, that Polonsky was never wronged, that his name had always appeared on the picture as it is now.
Video & Audio
Odds Against Tomorrow is presented in a full-frame transfer, which MGM claims to be its original theatrical release format. But full frame Hollywood movies were exceedingly rare by 1959, and everything about the film, from its (excellent) title design to the framing of its actors, suggests an original aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1. Zoomed in on a widescreen set, the compositions look much better, and generally eliminate the excessive headroom that appears when watching the film full frame. Only the titles were, very slightly, cropped at the 1.77:1 widescreen TV ratio. The image is also on the soft side, with an odd haloing effect during some exterior shots. The mono sound is okay, with John Lewisfs influential jazz score coming through fine. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered.
Somewhat rare for an MGM title, Odds Against Tomorrow has no extras at all, not even the usual trailer. It would have been interesting to see how a picture like this was marketed, probably with different campaigns for different parts of the country.
** The film also features one of the earliest uses of a zoom lens that this reviewer can recall.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.