Scorsese Screens - February 2021
In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film director and classic movie lover Martin Scorsese.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) (February 28 at 12:00am ET)
Almost a year ago, near the beginning of the lockdown, I took a fresh look at Odds Against Tomorrow, programmed on Noir Alley this month. It’s a picture I’ve always admired. This time, I was struck by the extraordinary quality of the acting. Almost every character is caught up in a sad reality of his or her own making, and Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley and Gloria Grahame make the flaws of the people they play as deeply felt as their virtues. For Ryan, who plays a violent Southern bigot (the part was originally offered to Richard Widmark), the challenge was to give his character a measure of humanity—which he certainly did. Belafonte is just as powerful as a smooth-talking jazz musician who’s so deep in debt that he’s forced to take part in a bank heist alongside Ryan that’s been organized by Begley’s disgraced ex-cop. Belafonte was the producer, and he made an interesting comment about the project (which was adapted by Abraham Polonsky, still blacklisted at the time and fronted in the credits by novelist John O. Killens, and Nelson Gidding from a novel by William P. McGivern, who also wrote the novel The Big Heat). The Ryan character “hates everybody, and the Negro is no stereotype of sweetness and light either. No brotherly love saves everyone here. Their hatred destroys them both.” Odds Against Tomorrow was made just as the old studio era was ending and different approaches and impulses in cinema were coming alive all over the world, and it’s comprised of so many distinctive elements (including the frankness that Belafonte describes) that it feels unlike any other picture of its time. Robert Wise shot almost all of the action on locations in Manhattan and, for the final heist sequence, Hudson, New York, in the dead of winter. He used infrared film for certain sequences, which gives the picture an extremely unusual quality, a heightened realism on the verge of a dream. John Lewis composed one of the greatest jazz scores in movies (with some of the finest jazz musicians of the time, including Bill Evans, Jim Hall and Milt Jackson), and music is beautifully incorporated into the action in the scene where Belafonte comes undone onstage and hijacks the song “All Men Are Evil” from Mae Barnes. But the most unusual aspect of Odds Against Tomorrow is the way it moves between the suspense plot and the mood of fatalism that’s shared by the characters and reflected in the winter light and the music and the near-abstract passages in the final section of the story. The picture wasn’t a great success when it came out, but over the years it’s become better known, little by little. For the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville, it was a milestone. He owned a 35mm print, watched it between 80 and 120 times (reports vary) and named it alongside The Asphalt Jungle and The Best Years of Our Lives as one of his three favorite movies.