"Odds Against Tomorrow" was recommended to me by Netflix, based on some of the other films I rented recently. I had never even heard of the film but am glad that I saw it.
Dave Burke (Ed Begley, "12 Angry Men"), a disgraced former cop now living in a dingy one-bedroom apartment, asks Earle Slater (Robert Ryan, "The Professionals"), a bigoted white Southerner recently moved to New York, to meet him. Earle is anxious to get some money of his own; he doesn't want to depend on his girlfriend (Shelly Winters) for financial support. Dave's plan is to rob a bank in Melton, a small town in upstate New York. He assures Earle that the plan is foolproof, like snatching candy from a baby, and will net each of them at least $50,000. (The film was made in 1958.) Earle doesn't want to have anything to do with it. Dave then meets with the other member of the group, Johnny (Harry Belafonte), a singer with a small jazz group. After hearing the plan, Johnny also passes. But events in the lives of Earle and Johnny conspire against them, forcing them to take part. When they eventually meet, racial conflicts arise threatening the job and their lives.
Directed by Robert Wise ("The Day The Earth Stood Still", "The Sound of Music"), "Odds Against Tomorrow" is not really the crime drama it is billed as, which is a surprise and benefits the film greatly. Almost two thirds of the film is about the lives of the two central characters, Earle and Johnny, devoting so much time to them, allowing us to get a sense of who they are, get to know them, allowing them to become real.
The film was produced by Harbel Productions, a production company owned by Harry Belafonte. It is easy to see why he was so interested in the project. Produced in the late 50s, "Tomorrow" uses the story of a bank robbery as a vehicle to tell the tale of two men and their racial conflict. This seems a more effective way of getting the message across; gradually introducing it, creating characters, letting their conflict seep into the storyline. So often, films with 'morals' or 'messages' make these all encompassing, beating the viewer over the head. Think back to your school days. If a teacher assigned a book like "To Kill A Mockingbird" to you, it probably felt like you had to struggle through every word. If you discovered it on your own, you probably realized what an outstanding piece of literature it is. The same is true of film, perhaps even more so. If we enjoy the film, the story, the setting, are interested in the characters, we are probably more likely to retain any messages or morals the film might be trying to convey.
Earle is the first person we meet and he immediately uses a racial slur. This is shocking and unexpected, more so because of the delivery and the circumstances, robbing the scene of artificial theatricality. Ryan's portrayal is very interesting; on the one hand, he is a deeply bigoted man, on the other; he is in a very dysfunctional relationship. The dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend, Lorry (Shelly Winters) balances out the occasional outbursts his character displays.
We witness how their relationship works. She is desperate to love him, but recognizes that he is also flawed. She wants him to have the independence a job and an income of his own would grant him. But since he doesn't, she isn't above asking him to pick up her dress at the dry cleaners. She is working a job and he isn't. Why shouldn't he help out with the errands? There is also a next door neighbor (Gloria Graham), a lonely woman who flirts incessantly with Earle.
Johnny (Belafonte) is also portrayed with a vividness we often don't see in films. A member of a jazz combo, there is almost a feeling that if he didn't have all of the extraneous influences on his life he might be a famous singer. (Gee, that's a stretch.) But Belafonte brings a quiet earnestness to the role helping the character become three dimensional. Johnny is divorced, but still very much in love with his wife, and still very involved in her life due to their daughter. He spends as much time with his daughter as possible, taking her to parks, merry go rounds, the like. He loves his ex-wife, but is a little bothered by her attempts to become assimilated with the mostly white PTA of their daughter's school. Their relationship is difficult, but it is evident that each still holds feelings for the other.
As Johnny's life becomes influenced by elements at the nightclub, everything becomes increasingly unsettled; he is an alcoholic, using liquor to quell his problems, he is a gambler, always hoping for the next horse to win big, to settle his loses. But his bookie becomes anxious and this ends up working to Johnny's disadvantage.
After spending a significant amount of time with each of the characters, the noose tightens around each of their necks, forcing them to take part in Dave's plan.
After the journey to Melton, the film becomes a more traditional heist film. This part also works well because Wise takes great pains to make the setting and place very realistic. We have all seen small towns like Melton and know of the large central bank, where all of the tellers know all of the customers (clearly a piece of the past, but we know they exist). Dave learns of a kink in the system which they intend to take full advantage of.
Robert Wise directed some of the most popular films of our time, yet people aren't aware of him as much as they are aware of other film directors; Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks. I think the key to this is that Wise directed a wide range of films, covering many genres and other directors became famous for concentrating in a particular area. Wise has directed science fiction ("The Day The Earth Stood Still"), musicals ("West Side Story", "The Sound of Music"), horror ("The Haunting", a film and book which both still give me chills), drama ("Executive Suite") and of course, crime dramas. Did you know that he started out as a sound editor working on "Top Hat" and "The Gay Divorcee", two of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best films? Then he moved on to film editing, working on "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" with Orson Welles. A pretty impressive pedigree. It seems a shame that a film director who worked in a variety of genres should be remembered less well because of this. More film directors would benefit from working on a series of different films. Wise is a director worth remembering, a director who made a series of very impressive, very memorable films.
"Odds Against Tomorrow" is a forgotten gem. Check it out.