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Now available on DVD and Blu-ray, Odds Against Tomorrow is also another welcome addition to the BFI’s Black Star slate. One of the most striking things upon viewing this admirably dark and gritty crime yarn is the realisation that the filmmaker behind it is the same person who unleashed a singing nun and seven moppets extolling the joys of music scales into the world. Made six years before saccharine-drenched megahit, The Sound of Music, prolific director Robert Wise was at the helm for this hard-hitting noir.
It seldom shies away from the ugly face of racism, or the desperate actions of men who are pushed to the edge. David Burke (Ed Begley) is a former cop cast out from his profession after refusing to inform on a crocked colleague. In bad shape financially, he decides to rob a bank and turns to an unrepentant ex-convict and murderer by the name of Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) to help assist in his scheme. Slater sees this tasty job as a means of breaking away from his domineering live-in lover (Shelley Winters).
However, he’s livid to discover that Burke has also enlisted a black nightclub singer, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), deep in debt due to a spiralling gambling addiction. Aided by stunning black and white cinematography (the film’s exterior New York-based footage has a stark, documentary feel) an oppressive and downbeat aura hangs over Odds Against Tomorrow. This sombre atmosphere extends to the impressive turns from the trio of lead actors, particularly the weathered Robert Ryan who is as despicable as they come.
Belafonte, the moral centrepiece, and actual brainchild behind the film, also delivers an equally impressive turn. If Slater is a single-minded lout, Ingram is a nuanced and shaded character – a proud but angry individual with a deeply conflicting ideology around race and assimilation to that of his desperate wife. Racial tensions constantly threaten to unravel the trio’s pre-planning of their heist as Burke struggles to keep his warring associates from blowing up.
Before the moment of action finally arrives, Wise cranks things up further by creating a tense and almost silent build-up which is stretched out to agonising proportions until the somewhat enviable botched actions of the characters. The downbeat ending and the film’s last line illustrates the utter futility of bigotry, and while it may be a little on the nose, it feels particularly pertinent to the currently political and social landscape.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76