The unofficial timeline for classic film noir is approximately given as 1941-1958 but of course, there are notable outliers including Stranger on The 3rd Floor (1940) at the front end and this film, Odds Against Tomorrow, bringing up the rear. Pictures with what can easily be categorized as noir sensibilities whether visually, psychologically, or otherwise certainly were released outside of these arbitrary parameters. However, that’s part of the fun because this “genre” is so fluid and malleable; there’s no technical cutoff or subjective standards.
Director Robert Wise is generally remembered for his later works like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) but every man has a Hollywood origin story. He cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane (1941) no less and began making gritty crime dramas in the late 40s. Two of the most commendable would be Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), the latter featuring Robert Ryan, now a crucial player again a decade later in the last of Wise’s outings in the same noir world.
We get our first glimpse of Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) walking on West Side Street in New York City and those shots assist in establishing the locale that we will be making our home in. Slater is on his way to a business arrangement with David Burke (Ed Begley).
They both have their reasons for joining forces. Burke was formerly a policeman who spent years faithfully serving on the force but when he wouldn’t get involved in a criminal investigation it all but sunk his career. Earl’s a less desirable character with a messy past as an ex-con and none too hidden racist tendencies.
He was the bigot with antisemitism in Crossfire (1947) so it’s a cinch that Ryan could play the narrow-minded white man in this picture too. We get an inclination when he playfully picks up the little African-American girl on his way to a meeting but it comes into full relief once he and the third member of their party, Ingram, are actually in a room together.
What makes the characterization so fascinating is though it’s so easy to envision Ryan in such roles because he plays each with such convincing enmity, he was a real-life crusader for Civil Rights and numerous other progressive causes. This is by no means his actual stance; far from it. Yet he makes us believe.
Though predominantly remembered as a singing star and for his presence in musicals, this was a self-selected part for Harry Belafonte (through his HarBel production company) that substantiates itself as arguably the most rewarding part of his career. He is Johnny Ingram a nightclub crooner who also plays a mean xylophone. But his greatest vice is that he’s a compulsive and extremely unsuccessful gambler — a bankroll of over $7,000 he’s supposed to dish out to a local mobster is residual proof.
Ed Begley, in a particularly charming role, acts as the calming force assuaging egos and keeping his team from completely tearing each other apart. Because he appreciates their talents and keeps them focused most of all on the payday that awaits them, $50,000 they could all use desperately.
Obviously, Ingram has his debts but also a daughter and an estranged wife to look after. Slater is rather unhappily married to a woman (Shelley Winters) who is supporting him for now. But he’s also fairly amicable with his neighbor down the hall (Gloria Grahame).
Although the bigotry angle is no doubt important it’s not necessarily the focal point of the picture. Foremost of all, Odds Against Tomorrow is a showcase of style and atmospherics. There’s a seedy urban realism that aids in fashioning a tale of claustrophobic impending doom merely supplemented by the racial undertones. Wise achieves a certain look widely due to his on-location shoot but also infrared film stock which gives a very specific monochromatic quality to the exterior shots. Backed by jazzy scoring courtesy of John Lewis and we have a complete package standing toe to toe with Wise’s grittiest efforts.
Whereas most heist pictures take the route of letting the job occur and slowly unravel with mishaps that lead to extended agitation, this picture takes a slightly different approach. We get a line on the characters — their significant others and their problems — so their decisions make more sense. We know why they feel compelled to go through with what looks like “easy money.” However, the actual undertaking torques the picture’s ending into a fever pitch.
Because the title, of course, refers to gambling and the outcomes prove to be pretty bleak. Though the racial element began in the periphery it can’t help but reveal its ugliness in the film’s fatalistic finale. I won’t say the story comes off perfectly but if one is willing to feel it out and become immersed in the atmosphere, it generally succeeds by reveling in its environment.