Many of the earliest American movies were made in New York. While the center of commercial production shifted to Los Angeles in the teens, low-budget producers were still making films on the East Coast during the twenties and thirties. After WWII there was a resurgence of production in New York, and in the fifties independent filmmakers created a style all their own. Instead of Hollywood fantasy, these films embraced gritty reality. Instead of relying solely on studio sets, the directors often shot in the city streets.
Robert Wise was a product of the studio system. Starting out as an editor, he had worked his way up the ladder at RKO and in the forties he became a director. Early films like The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still had earned him a good deal of attention. At his best, Wise had a taut, straightforward approach that worked especially well in the world of B-movies.
But Odds Against Tomorrow feels totally different from Wise’s studio work. It has a looseness, a freedom that you don’t find in the director’s lean, suspenseful Hollywood thrillers. I think in large part this is because he was working in New York. It may have been the crew, or the locations, or maybe just stepping outside of the Hollywood box, but this movie stands apart from anything he’d done before.
To start with, the tone of Joseph Brun’s photography is different from anything I’ve seen coming out of Hollywood at the time. Brun’s images are rich and complex, but the light is generally diffused, giving us few solid blacks and bright whites, more shades of grey. The film takes place in winter, and the light feels thin and chilly. It’s also interesting to see how much attention is given to things on the periphery, details that don’t advance the story. Working in Hollywood, Wise was known for a direct, no-frills approach. Here the camera lingers on the shadows cast by horses on a merry-go-round, newspapers flying down an empty street, a pool of water rippling in the gutter.
This wouldn’t just be Brun’s doing. I suspect that this willingness to linger on the details is at least in part the work of Dede Allen. Odds Against Tomorrow is one of Allen’s earliest feature credits, but she had been working as an editor for years. Of course, Wise had started his career as an editor, but the rhythms here are definitely a departure from his previous work. My feeling is that this more creative, intuitive approach is probably due to Allen’s involvement. It seems to point toward her later work with Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. Instead of moving relentlessly forward, the film allows us to look around and linger on things that don’t advance the plot. The focus is less on the story than it is on mood, atmosphere, character.
The characters are very interesting. Ed Begley is Dave, an ex-cop who got busted and has fallen on hard times. He seems to be a sensitive, caring person, but he’s willing to do some ugly things to get what he wants. Robert Ryan gives a stunning, low-key performance. He has tremendous authority on the screen, and he uses it to pull us inside characters who are deeply flawed and deeply unhappy. Playing Earle, Ryan manages to keep us with him every minute, even though the man is a bitter, violent racist.
Johnny, played by Harry Belafonte, is the most sympathetic of the three, and also the most complicated. At first he appears to be smart, suave and confident, a talented nightclub performer who’s enjoying a certain amount of success. But as we learn more about him, we realize that his life isn’t nearly as sweet as it seems. The failure of his marriage is eating away at him, and his addiction to gambling has put him in a huge financial hole. And race is also an issue for Johnny, though it’s hard to pin his feelings down exactly. When he’s in his own world he seems completely comfortable with his white friends, but when he sees his wife inviting white acquaintances to her apartment, he can’t keep his resentment from boiling over. Belafonte plays the part with a striking mixture of assurance and sensitivity.
We wouldn’t get such vivid performances if the script didn’t provide such interesting characters. The screenplay was written by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding, based on the novel by William P. McGivern. As with many of the best heist films, the focus isn’t on the job but on the people. The robbery is a mechanism that allows us to observe the lives of these three men, and to watch how they interact. As the pressure builds, we see each of them slowly starting to crack, we see more of who they really are.
And John Lewis’ music provides a rich, resonant background for all of this. The jazz score is another aspect of the film that ties it to the New York school. There were many soundtracks written in Hollywood that incorporated jazz elements, but in New York the filmmakers often turned to actual jazz musicians. Lewis paints a moody, brooding backdrop for this bleak tale of desperation. He’s not afraid to use dissonance, and his brass arrangements make the tension in the story palpable. For the quieter moments he turns to vibes and guitar, which complement the sombre visuals well.
Wise made a number of excellent films in his long career, and he wasn’t afraid to take chances, to try new things. His openness to different approaches is probably one of the reasons Odds Against Tomorrow is such a striking movie. If he had shot it in Hollywood, it might have been a solid thriller. But I think shooting it in New York made it something more.