“Like you said, it’s just one role of the dice, doesn’t matter what color they are.”
Robert Wise is a fascinating case study. In a medium built on radical storytellers and auteurs, Wise is the epitome of a craftsman; a filmmaker without a discernible style. Were it not for the credits, one would never guess that The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), and West Side Story (1961) were made by the same man.
Unfortunately, Wise’s invisible touch has come to signify a lack of talent rather than an abundance of it. His name has become synonymous with slick, impersonal Hollywood fodder, while names like Hitchcock, Welles, and Wilder have become pillars of idiosyncrasy and depth.
This is a tragic oversight. It’s also untrue. Wise was a chameleon, sure, but he used his chameleonic tendencies to forge one of the greatest careers of all time. He’s one of a handful of filmmakers who can claim a masterpiece in multiple genres, and given his dizzying success with musicals, he may in fact be the only filmmaker with a masterpiece in every genre. Don’t let the lack of thematic unity or signature shots fool you. Few could elevate a film like him.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is a devastating example of Wise’s talents. It’s film noir of the bleakest order, punctuated by a series of aesthetic risks and experimental choices. Its harshness is impossible to overstate, and while Orson Welles gets the credit for ending noir the year before with Touch of Evil, Wise (Welles’ former editor) proved that there was still plenty of blood to squeeze from the proverbial pulp stone.
Odds Against Tomorrow tells the story of three men on the ropes. There’s Burke (Ed Begley), an ex-cop with criminal ambitions, Johnny (Harry Belafonte) a musician with a gambling problem, and Earle (Robert Ryan), a bigot with a bad temper. They all need money, and despite their mutual contempt, they agree to come together to rob an upstate bank.
The screenplay by Nelson Gidding and the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, tackles racism head on. Earle is curt and irrational when it comes to his dealings with Johnny, and despite wielding a more even temper, the musician makes it clear that he’d love to see Earle choke on his words. In contrast to other race-themed releases of the period (Blackboard Jungle,The Defiant Ones), which suggested hard-won but achievable solutions, Odds Against Tomorrow opted for catharsis. If Sidney Poitier was the movie star embodiment of Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, then Belafonte, who produced Odds Against Tomorrow and handpicked Polonsky, came closer to embodying Malcolm X’s perspective.
That’s not to say the film is overtly political. Odds Against Tomorrow is a noir at heart, and as such, the bitterness of the characters stems from their personal shortcomings. All three men engage in forms of degeneracy (bribery, adultery, gambling), and their inability to learn from their mistakes dooms them to criminal lifestyles. Johnny is positioned as the most virtuous of the trio, but the closer we get, the more we come to realize his charisma masks an emotional-stuntedness. After he gets shaken down by collectors at work, he boozes up and ruins a tune by one of the other performers. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also wickedly childish in ways we hadn’t previously expected.
Wise directed Robert Ryan in The Set-Up a decade earlier, and he once again finagles one of the actor’s best performances. They take a character that should be outright contemptible and make him tragic through an alternating series of outbursts and embarrassments. A chance visit to a bar leads to Earle punching a cocky soldier, and the realization that he was in the wrong leads to a brief moment of regret. There’s also Earle’s disconnected romance with Lorry (Shelley Winters), a woman he adores until she leaves and the sexy neighbor (Gloria Grahame) comes over.
Wise depiction of New York furthers the disconnectedness. It’s a wintery hellscape, with black asphalt and a bone-inducing chill that can practically be felt through the screen. The director wanted the city to feel slightly off-kilter, so he opted to shoot exterior scenes on infrared film. The results can be gleamed in the opener, when Earle walks down a street with ominous black skies and unnaturally white clouds. There’s also a slight distortion, which barely registers visually but furthers the feeling that something is wrong.
The director takes an even more radical approach when it comes to the heist. While most films build up to a show stopping set piece or spend the bulk of the final act depicting the heist itself, Odds Against Tomorrow prefers to show the little moments beforehand. The viewer is forced to sit with a pensive Johnny or a subtly anxious Burke as they wait for the right time to strike. It’s as if they know they’re doomed, and are given time to accept the idea before going into battle. Not that any of them bother.
The heist itself is shockingly anticlimactic, botched before anyone gets away. Burke is shot down by the police, and the other two attempt to recover the money from Burke’s limp body. Johnny is convinced that Earle mucked things up and vice versa, and without Burke to play peacemaker, they turn on each other and take their fight to a fuel storage. Their desire to kill each other proves to be literally explosive, as a misdirected bullet causes the whole place to blow. In the end, Johnny and Earle’s bodies are so mangled that the police are unable to tell them apart. Irony of the cruelest sort.
Odds Against Tomorrow screened at the most recent Noir City festival, and watching the film with an audience affirmed the power it still has. Wise may be most closely associated with the Technicolor musicals of the 1960s, but his talent for film noir was unimpeachable, and Odds is perhaps his greatest ever showcase. It’s ninety-five minutes of lean, mean storytelling with visual panache and a star-studded, well-utilized cast.
TRIVIA: Despite their contentious relationship onscreen, Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan got on famously during production and remained friends.
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.