Noir Nook: Five Things I Love About Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
If you’ve read my past posts here at the Noir Nook, you might know that I’ve been participating the last few years in a film group that meets virtually once a week to talk about classic movies available on YouTube. In a recent meeting, we discussed the 1959 noir Odds Against Tomorrow, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley. The plot is a simple one; former cop Dave Burke (Begley) plans a bank robbery and hires two men, ex-con Earle Slater (Ryan) and musician Johnny Ingram (Belafonte) to help him carry it out. Each of the men harbor their own desperate reasons for agreeing to participate in the scheme, but the relatively uncomplicated plan is made more tenuous because of the seething racial tensions between Slater, who is white, and Ingram, who‘s black. This being noir, and in the tradition of such predecessors as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1956), and Rififi (1955), you can reasonably expect that, despite the well-laid plan, things won’t exactly turn out the way they’re designed.
Because of the dark and sometimes unpleasant nature of Odds Against Tomorrow, several participants in the movie discussion group admitted that they didn’t plan on any repeat viewings. But one member said she’d seen it numerous times – and would gladly welcome the opportunity to see it again. I’m with her – the more I see Odds Against Tomorrow, the more I love it, and this month’s Noir Nook is dedicated to the top five reasons why.
The On-Location Shooting
The gritty realism of the film is heightened by the location shooting in New York. The action begins on a rain-swept, trash-laden gutter on West 143rd Street, where Robert Ryan passes by the Norcit Hotel, which was an actual New York hotel at the time. Another scene briefly shows the Majestic, a landmark apartment building located on Central Park West that was once the home of such luminaries as Milton Berle and Walter Winchell. Other scenes are shot in front of an apartment building on East 26th Street, and at the carousel, the Wollman ice skating rink, and the zoo in Central Park. And to serve as the city of Melton, where the heist took place, scenes were shot in Hudson, located in upstate New York.
The film’s score is strictly cool jazz – the kind of music that evokes dark, windowless nightclubs filled with smoke and perfume, punctuated by the tinkling sounds of ice in a glass of scotch. It was composed by John Lewis, who was the founder and musical director of the famed Modern Jazz Quartet. And the movie includes two singing numbers that will have you patting your feet and wishing you had them on a CD – My Baby’s Not Around, sung by Harry Belafonte, and All Men Are Evil, sung by Mae Barnes (who, incidentally, is credited with introducing the popular Charleston dance to Broadway in the early 1920s in the all-black revue Running’ Wild).
Odds Against Tomorrow’s characters are endlessly fascinating to me – they include Shelley Winters as Earle’s girlfriend and Gloria Grahame as their too-hot-too-trot neighbor – but Johnny and Earle are especially complicated and intriguing. Johnny suffers from a gambling addiction; even though he’s thousands of dollars in debt, he can’t stay away from the racetrack. He has a beautiful girlfriend who he neglects, a daughter he adores, and an ex-wife he’s still in love with. And Earle, who clearly demonstrates his bigotry in the film’s very first scene, alternately clings to his wife (Shelley Winters) with childlike neediness, treats her with contempt, or desperately strives to be the family’s breadwinner by any means necessary. These are interesting, fully formed characters who vacillate between earning your sympathy and securing your disdain.
The Familiar Faces
Speaking of characters, numerous characters in the film are played by actors and actresses who are recognizable from other films or TV shows – I love spotting them in this vehicle before they became better known. Making his film debut, there’s Wayne Rogers, of TV’s MASH fame, playing a soldier who has an unexpected encounter with Earle in a bar. And Zohra Lampert, as the soldier’s girlfriend; I remember her best in her role as Warren Beatty’s wife in Splendor in the Grass. An elevator operator is played by Mel Stewart, who was George Jefferson’s brother on All in the Family and had a recurring role on the 1980s TV series Scarecrow and Mrs. King. James Earl Jones’s father, Robert, is seen slipping a gun to Johnny in a nightclub; he played the ill-fated mentor of Robert Redford in The Sting (1973). Barney Martin, who played Jerry’s father on Seinfeld, can be seen for a couple of seconds as the driver of a car who gets into an accident in Melton. And in her second big-screen appearance, Cicely Tyson has a few lines as a nightclub bartender.
I don’t want to spoil the film’s conclusion, but let’s just say it ends with a bang and not a whimper, capped off by a line that’s fairly brimming with irony and serves as the absolutely perfect noir finish.
Odds Against Tomorrow can be found for free on YouTube – if you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. And if you love this gem as much I do, treat yourself to a rewatch.
You won’t be sorry.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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