Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947)

While, on the surface, Odd Man Out presents itself as yet another film noir, this very presentation constitutes the inescapable politicisation which the film tries to avoid. When considered in the context of film history, Reed's film has most (if not all) of the elements that one would find in a bona fide film noir. Aside from the fact that it was directed and photographed by the same director and cinematographer that would 2 years later rejoin to create one of the most famous film noirs (The Third Man - 1949), we can also observe many of the same aesthetic and thematic conventions that one would associate with a film noir. Visually, the use of low-key lighting, dramatic shadows, chiaroscuro and location shooting using night-for-night are all elements used heavily throughout Odd Man Out, elements which are often favoured and associated with noir aesthetic. Common themes found in Odd Man Out and associated with film noir are the element of crime (specifically murder), the ensuing criminal investigation, the morally flawed protagonist and the eventual bleak ending. For all intents and purposes, Odd Man Out is a film noir. If one were to transpose the story to some other location (the streets of New York perhaps?) it is conceivable that it would make little difference to the film's ability to function, draw an audience, advance a plot or otherwise exist as part of 40's film-noir. If that is true, how can we possibly claim any political nature related to this film, given that we've just shown that it follows an apolitical genre that can work regardless of its geography? It is however, this very choice of aesthetic when dealing with the otherwise very politicised subject at hand that is the very politicisation of a film which presents itself as apolitical on the surface. As John Hill argues, due to 'the film's choice of aesthetic conventions, the politics of the film reside in the very repression of those factors that would invest the film's events with a social and political dimension'[1]. Hill further claims that 'the film's de-contextualizing aesthetic tends to reinforce pre-existing views of the 'troubles' as largely inexplicable'[2]. But while it would be easy to dismiss the film as having a unionist bias that is repressive of the nationalist point of view through a de-politicisation of the film, Hill is quick to point out elements of the film that render it favourable to the nationalist view. Specifically, the film's tragic structure that uses a big box-office star as a dying IRA agent encourages a degree of sympathy[3]. He further goes to make a link to the Irish republican tradition of 'failure' and suffering, quoting Richard Kearney's suggestion that 'the capacity to arouse sympathy and support through suffering (as in the hunger-strike) has been one of Irish republicanism's strongest weapons[4]. Therefore, the film seems to cater to both ideologies through different means, while appearing to cater to neither (which allowed it to be made and shown). In conclusion, Hill points out that 'virtually any film dealing with Northern Ireland is liable to become the subject of competing interpretations given the inferential frameworks that local audiences will bring to bear on any film with a local connection'[5]. In this respect, that is true of any film dealing with a highly politicised subject in a non-politicised way. When the film takes a stance, it is easy for the viewer to either identify with or resent that stance. When it pretends not to take one, however, each viewer involved in the issue will attempt to find clues to an either pro or con stance that the film might take, even if those clues are not there or when they are there unintentionally. Finally, Odd Man Out strikes a nice balance, and manages to work as an apolitical film noir for those audiences not involved in its politics.

[1] Hill, 2006, p126

[2] Hill, 2006, p126

[3] Hill, 2006, p126

[4] Kearney, 1980

[5] Hill, 2006, p126

Hill, J. (2006). Cinema and Northern Ireland. London: BFI

Kearney,R.(1980). The IRA's Strategy of Failure. The Crane Bag. Vol. 4, No. 2.

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