If Robert Wise had only stayed working as editor he would be a legend for his work on Citizen Kane alone. He would also a villain for his role in the destruction of Orson Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. However he would become a fantastic director in his own right; his directorial debut was the endlessly fascinating The Curse of the Cat People. He would direct such iconic films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music but also many film noirs in the ’40s and ’50s. His last noir was Odds Against Tomorrow which was also a favourite of French noir maestro Jean-Pierre Melville.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a heist film where the heist really is secondary to the interplay between Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte. Ryan plays the deeply racist ex-con Earl Slater who teams up with a ex-cop turned criminal David Burke (Ed Begley) after he tells him of a heist he has planned. Belafonte plays Johnny Ingram who is a nightclub entertainer who doesn’t want the job but he has gambling debts which he needs to pay off desperately.
Slater reluctantly agrees to do the heist after he learns Johnny is black however like Jonny he desperately needs the money. After it falls apart Jonny and Slater fight each while the cops are on the their trail. Like most of the late noirs it has an ending which is more fatalistic han even the standard noir or even apocalyptic. It’s also a statement of the greed of men and the destruction that can occur because of their greed.
Wise is extremely underrated in the sense his body of work was so diverse so he is hard to pin down as an auteur. He maybe also underrated by autuerists because he destroyed Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. He worked in every genre and made great films in pretty much every genre. He did however have a knack for the crime film especially set in the urban environment and his next film was West Side Story which even fits in this as well. The film runs at a tight pace of 95 minutes and is beautifully shot by Joseph C. Brun.
Belafonte gives perhaps his greatest role as Ingram and perfectly gets the paranoia the role needs in the last act. He was notoriously picky when it came out to what roles he was willing to do, he only did 5 films in the first 17 years of his film career and not many after that. He always choose films which had a social conscience as well as a slightly oft-kilter quality which reflected his own personal taste.
Ryan was a stable of noir he previously worked with Robert Wise on his boxing noir The Set-Up for example. Robert Ryan perfectly captures the racism of the character even though he was a famous lefty and fought against racism and McCarthyism. The supporting actresses are the cream of the crop of Noir actresses in Shelley Winters and the gloriously sexy but equally grotesque Gloria Grahame and this was her last film of much note.
Overall Odds Against Tomorrow is essential for Noir fanatics but also people interested in the beginning of when Hollywood would make more films which were more sophisticated in its depictions of race, sex and violence. It also contains fantastic performances from the cast and a key film in Robert Wise’s extraordinary career. BFI has landed a worldwide Blu-Ray debut here and has created a handsome package.
The special features start off with Harry Belafonte doing an excellent Q&A after a screening in 2009. Adrian Wootton talks for around 30 minutes on the film. BFI has also rummaged through their archive and pulled out a video onstage with Robert Wise from 1997 and an audio recording of a lecture by Robert Ryan in 1969 both recorded at NFT. The release is finished with a booklet which includes new writing by Tega Okiti.