The Philip French choice of Classic DVD for today’s edition of The Observer, the 1959 Harry Belafonte film noir Odds Against Tomorrow is not quite as good as he says it is, but it does have a lot to recommend it.
Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane and went on to direct classics in every genre and sub-genre. This thriller is his noir masterpiece, a sombre heist movie, co-adapted from William P McGivern’s pulp novel by the left-wing, African-American John O Killens and Nelson Gidding, a frequent Wise collaborator. The setting is a morally and physically chilling New York winter and race is a major theme.
Ed Begley plays a disgraced cop luring seriously unbalanced killer Robert Ryan and black nightclub singer Harry Belafonte into joining him in robbing a small-town bank he’s cased. Ryan is a psychopathic racist, Belafonte is in debt to the mob and estranged from a wife eager to embrace middle-class, white values. A superb John Lewis score is performed by fellow members of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle.
Rather surprisingly, French neglects to mention that it was then balcklisted Abraham Polonsky , writer of both Body and Soul and Force of Evil and director of the latter, rather than the “African-American John O Killens” who actually co-wrote the script, a fact that was recognised in 1996, when the Writers Guild of America restored Polonsky’s credit under his real name.
It seems that Belafonte, who was both producer and star, chose Polonsky and then persuaded his friend Killens to allow his name to be used as a cover.
Incidentally, the John Lewis soundtrack score is quite as “superb” as French says it is.