Desperate men commit desperate acts, and the three protagonists of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW are desperate indeed in this late entry in the film noir cycle. This is a powerful film that adds social commentary to the usual crime and it’s consequences plot by tainting one of the protagonists with the brush of racism. Robert Wise, who sharpened his skills in the RKO editing room, directs the film in a neo-realistic style, leaving the studio confines for the most part behind, and the result is a starkly lit film where the shadows of noir only dominate at night.
But more on Wise later… first, let’s meet our three anti-heroes. We see Earle Slater (Robert Ryan ) walking down a New York street bathed in an eerie white glow (Wise used infra-red film to achieve the effect). Slater’s a fish out of water, a transplanted Southerner drifted North, a loser and loose cannon with a criminal record and no prospects of work. He’s also an unapologetic racist, as we learn when he calls a young black child he meets on the street “you little pickaninny”.
Slater is on his way to meet Dave Burke (Ed Begley ), an ex-cop thrown off the force in a scandal. Burke seems like a kindly older gentleman, living alone with his faithful German Shepard, but harbors much bitterness inside. Burke was connected to Slater through a mutual acquaintance, and has a proposition for him, a fool-proof bank robbery that will net Slater fifty thousand dollars.
The third member of this group is Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte, whose company produced the film). Johnny’s a jazz singer and vibraphonist, “a bonepicker in a four man graveyard”, divorced and heavily in gambling debt to gangster Bacco (Will Kuluva). Johnny’s also given the proposition by Burke, but at first turns it down as being a sucker’s play.
But when Burke asks Bacco to apply the pressure, including having his goons stalk Johnny and his daughter at the park, Johnny accepts the deal. The three men meet and plan the heist, and Slater throws a fly in the ointment by refusing to work with a black man. Johnny’s race is integral to making the scheme a success, and Slater is desperate to prove his manhood and stop living off his girlfriend (Shelley Winters ), so he reluctantly agrees. The trio take a trip upstate to a small town (filmed partially in Hudson, NY), where things definitely do not go as planned, and a slam-bang ending that will remind you of WHITE HEAT .
The three stars shine brightly, with Ryan particularly effective as the violent, racist Slater. Belafonte has an amazing presence,which the singer didn’t get a chance to exhibit onscreen often enough; his character is a bit of a racist himself, berating his ex-wife (Kim Hamilton) for associating with her “ofay” PTA friends, but still manages to gain the audience’s sympathy. Begley was a fine actor in many classic films (PATTERNS, 12 ANGRY MEN) who’d win an Oscar three years later for SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Shelley Winters’ role is small but pivotal in understanding Ryan’s character. Even smaller, but just as effective, is Gloria Grahame’s role as their across-the-hall neighbor. Also in the cast is Richard Bright making his film debut as one of Kuluva’s hoods; he’d later play the murderous Al Neri in THE GODFATHER movies. Others making their film debuts are Wayne Rogers (M*A*S*H’s Trapper John), Zohra Lampert (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), and Mel Stewart (SCARECROW AND MRS. KING). Cicely Tyson appears in her second film as a bartender.
Wise was no stranger to film noir, having made such classics as BORN TO KILL , THE SET-UP , HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, and THE CAPTIVE CITY. While those films are all shadows and darkness, Wise shot much of this movie in the bright sunlight, until the darkness takes over during the robbery. Robert Wise was one of those directors that could handle any genre, from horror (THE BODY SNATCHER , THE HAUNTING ) to westerns (BLOOD ON THE MOON, TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN), sci-fi (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN) to drama (EXECUTIVE SUITE, I WANT TO LIVE!), war movies (RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, THE SAND PEBBLES) to epic musicals (WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and handle them all superbly. Refusing to be pigeonholed, Robert Wise’s body of work is one of the most impressive in Hollywood history.
The soundtrack for ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW was composed by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. When you hear it, you’re hearing the some of the best jazz had to offer: Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, Bill Evans, Connie Kay, and other greats of the era. The movie’s downbeat ending will leave you breathless and thinking, like all great films do. It’s a film ahead of its time, still relevant and maintaining its power today.