Saturday, May 1, 2010

Review: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

It started out so well. This film started out by introducing its subject matter subtley. So subtley that I didn't actually realise that Harry Belafonte's character was black until he took his hat off, revealing a clipped afro. And then Robert Ryan's character pronounced (not in the presence of Belafonte), "I ain't working with a [n word]" and everything becomes ridiculously, ham-fistedly about racism. It wasn't the moment itself that ruined everything - the moment was effective and shocking, and made you reassess everything you had seen up to that point. The problem was everything afterwards. After that pivotal moment, every time race was mentioned, it felt like being shouted at. Like the film was screaming in my face, "this is racism! This is what a racist looks like! Racism is bad!" All this race-talk culminates in a literally explosive finale, as if the film felt it hadn't quite been obvious enough up to that point.

This is not to say that it was a bad film. Robert Wise's direction, when it doesn't involve screaming at the audience about race, is taught and suspenseful, all the acting is very good (particularly Belafonte, and particuarly in a scene where he drunkenly ruins a cabaret performer's act, before venting all his pain and frustration on a xylophone), the score is excellent, the cinematography is dark and brooding and stylised wonderfully. It's just the lack of thematic subtlety that gets me.

I'll give you an example of what I mean: before the fatal "I ain't working with a bleep" line, I just sort of assumed that all of the signifiers of racism were just character bits, devoid of racial meaning. For example; we see both Belafonte and Ryan riding up in an elevator, manned by an African American. Ryan goes up first, and the elevator man attempts to make light hearted small talk - Ryan is having none of it. Belafonte goes up soon after - this time, the elevator man is cautious about starting up a conversation, because of how he was burned the last time, and it is Belafonte who starts making jokes. When I first saw these two scenes, I just sort of assumed that they were to demonstrate that Ryan was a grizzled, angry, loser of a man, and that Belafonte was a happy go lucky kind of guy. After the fatal line, I reassessed my previous opinions of the scene, and realised it was about race - this is thematically intelligent.

After the fatal line though, when Ryan and Belafonte actually meet, we get such 'subtle' and 'nuanced' lines like Ryan saying, "You don't have to think, boy, you just have to serve the coffee and sandwiches, and wear a big grin." You hear that sound? That is the sound of Robert Wise throwing subtlety out the window. You also get obvious and irritating scenes, such as the conflict between Belafonte and his ex-wife, which is so blatantly a symbolic dogmatic argument between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. that it feels like you're reading a history book about black rights in America.

I guess it's a good thing that films like this dealt with topics such as racism and biogtry at a time when those things were still very much a part of every day life, I just wish the film had been less self conscious about it. After all, the film does actually deal with sexism in quite a subtle way - all the problems of the film could have been avoided if Ryan's character had been able to get over his stupid macho persona, and accept the fact that his live-in girlfriend made more money than he did. But it doesn't cram this proto-feminism down our throats, so it actually comes across as intelligent, rather than vaguely irritating.

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