Don’t you just get sick of the auteur theory at times? Granted, of course, the theory established some big name directors on the map and helped film-goers spot and narrow down an auteur’s visual style and recurring themes. But over and over again, you can’t help but wince at the sight of seeing a credit saying “a film by…” followed by the director’s name, when filmmaking is indeed a collaborative effort. Not that watching films by critically acclaimed filmmakers all the time is a bad thing, but watching a movie made by a person who was not nailed down to a particular theme, style or genre is a breath of fresh air when needed. For those looking for that person, Robert Wise is one of those directors. Kicking his career off as an editor, who shaped Orson Welles’ iconic debut, Citizen Kane, Wise has been known as a craftsman since his origins as a filmmaker. That was until his editing job switched over to directing because RKO, the studio behind Citizen Kane, needed a new director to finish up the sequel to Cat People, with Wise somehow being an appropriate candidate for the job. Since then, Wise dabbled in genre after genre, from musicals [The Sound of Music], horror [The Haunting], and sci-fi [The Day the Earth Stood Still]. But with his prolific track record, there is bound to be many films that fall through the cracks – Odds Against Tomorrow is one such film.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a film noir starring Harry Belafonte as Johnny Ingram, a debt-ridden nightclub singer who is deep into gambling addiction. Ingram luckily gets a call from ex-policeman, David Burke (Ed Begley) offering him $50,000 in cash if they can pull off a successful heist on a local bank, featuring himself, Ingram and one other man. The only problem is that the other man, Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) is a racist ex-convict which causes an internal friction between Ingram and Slater that is bound to leave the heist plan in doom and failure.
Both Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte give Odds Against Tomorrow their utmost passion and commitment to the project. Belafonte, who was also an executive producer on the film, portrays a firm but internally conflicted and irate character. Ingram is a vain man, but he has trouble connecting with the ideology around race considering his wife (Kim Hamilton) is ready to embrace white, working-class values. He even struggles to take his child to the park without his co-workers turning up. Wise and cinematographer, Joseph C. Brun, shoot a multitude of close-ups in deep focus around whizzing merry-go-rounds and crowds of screaming children reflecting Ingram’s dazed and paranoid state of mind since accepting the job. As for Ryan, he plays a gruff bigot who has racist tendencies. Since accepting the job, he wishes to desperately split up with his girlfriend (Shelley Winters). But he can’t control his own anger, even towards those younger than him. In a bar, a group of rowdy teenagers are having fun, but are also being disruptive for Slater who lets loose a sly remark which causes a confrontation. The scene ends with Slater knocking down one of the teenagers and fleeing after realising that the kid was only trying to show-off. Slater is a vicious character.
Caught in the crossfire between Ingram and Slater is Ed Begley as the cold-blooded Burke – the centerpiece of all the in-fighting, the one who ends it, full stop. But without him in the picture, the borderlines will collapse and crumble away into meaningless failure, and the other men will be at each other’s throats. Out of the three, Burke is the least developed character, we don’t see his relationships with the opposite sex and there is certainly no interesting values cemented within the character unlike the other two. But why should there be? With the third man, all he needs to do is act as a temporary resolution to the conflict. Without him, the film would be very uneven. Wise and Brun frames this three-way relationship around stunning noir cinematography. Buildings tower over the city’s inhabitants, the wide angles impose an impressive atmosphere. There is a constant somber aura that hangs over the film, and it only enhances the performances, especially when Ryan is at his most vile.
The climax gets its message across quite clearly in that no matter what race you’re from, everyone is made from the same flesh and bone, is rather heavy-handed and on the nose when it doesn’t need to be. Without giving too much away, it feels both clever and unsubtle in its design, whilst the rest of the film is nuanced to the point where the ending sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s as if Samuel Fuller took over directing duties for the climax and the film’s end, one rewrite could have fixed this. But otherwise, Odds Against Tomorrow is an impressive and underappreciated noir that started and ended two different eras. It marked the beginning of African-American actors in lead roles, but since it was released in 1959, it also marked the end of the classic noir period. With neo-noir shortly on the rise, it is a shame that it did get overlooked. But now since its issue on BFI Blu-Ray as another release on their Black Star season, Odds Against Tomorrow has a chance to shine again.