Blu-ray Review: Odd Man Out - The Criterion Collection

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The Criterion Collection has issued a terrific Blu-ray edition of director Carol Reed’s 1947 noir classic Odd Man Out. This is a startling film for reasons other than its original promotional campaign, which trumpeted the film as “the most exciting motion picture ever made.” In fact, Odd Man Out is the furthest thing from exciting (in any conventional sense), but it chameleonic shifts in tone make it exceptionally compelling. James Mason stars as Johnny McQueen, a recently-freed convict who is participating in a paper mill heist in order to fund “The Organization” (aka the IRA—the film takes place “against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland,” a title card informs as at the outset—no direct mention is made of the IRA, however).

The story unfolds unpredictably, which is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. The soft-spoken contemplation of the first act, during which we meet Johnny and his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) as the heist is outlined, is quietly meditative. Before long, it becomes painfully clear to Johnny’s cohorts that he may not be up the physical rigors presented by their task. Sure enough the caper itself sets off a disastrous chain of events that finds Johnny, who was forced to shoot down an interloper, left for dead after falling out of the getaway car. Director Reed makes some striking stylistic adjustments that move the film into shadowy, paranoid, expressionistic territory as Johnny is an injured man on the run. The story covers one long, hellish night.

Odd Man Out 1 (380x295).jpgNew characters enter throughout the narrative, keeping the balance between those sympathetic to Johnny, partner Dennis (Robert Beatty), and other members of the revolutionary ‘Organization’ and those who choose to follow the letter of the law. But again, as stated upfront in the opening titles, Odd Man Out “is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization.” There isn’t any judgment being passed here as Johnny, drifting into feverish hallucination, encounters one potential savoir after another. Reed’s (and screenwriter R.C. Sherriff’s) story is concerned “only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved." Kathleen is the truest ally Johnny has in his corner as his plight becomes increasingly dire. As romances go, the depiction of Kathleen and Johnny’s love couldn’t possibly be more dry-eyed and unsentimental, all the more extraordinary when considering the era in which the film was produced.

With side characters having brief turns in the spotlight throughout, James Mason delivers a truly odd (as the title suggests), though carefully constructed, “leading man” performance. As a lost man fighting what feels like a lost cause, Mason is never less than compelling. Even during long stretches in which he doesn’t appear, his presence remains felt. All of the performances are impressively reigned in, however, and special note also goes to Kathleen Ryan for her deeply introspective work.

Criterion’s presentation is certainly worthy of their lofty standards. The high-definition transfer was made from a “35mm composite fine-grain made from the original nitrate negative” (according to the booklet). Robert Crasker’s cinematography doesn’t really show its age, though the image overall appears to be a bit on the low contrast side. A great deal of obvious care was invested in the restoration, but it’s hard not wonder if a little harsher contrast might’ve brought out even more drama in those impressionistic shadows. Not much to say regarding the LPCM 1.0 soundtrack as it is pretty much flawless in its unfussy way.

Odd Man Out BD cover (306x380).jpgA mixture of new and vintage supplemental features greatly enhances appreciation for Odd Man Out. “Templates for the Troubles: John Hill on Odd Man Out” is a brand-new Criterion exclusive, a 24-minute interview featurette with film historian and author John Hill. This piece deals with the historical context behind Odd Man Out, examining its real-life IRA inspirations. The 16-minute “Postwar Poetry: Carol Reed and Odd Man Out” is also new, a featurette more specifically focused on the making of the film. Last of the new materials, “Collaborative Composition: Scoring Odd Man Out” is a 21-minute interview with author and music expert Jeff Smith, who examines William Alwyn’s score and the overall sound design of the film.

Vintage supplements include the 1972 documentary Home, James. This 54-minute film is presented in seven chapters and focuses on James Mason and his hometown of Huddersfield. “Suspense, Episode 460” is an audio-only bonus, a 1952 radio adaptation of Odd Man Out starring James Mason. It runs 30 minutes and is split into five chapters. The booklet contains an essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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