The Scalphunters is anti-racist Western directed by Sidney Pollack. Burt Lancaster is the trapper whose furs, a whole winter’s work, get stolen first by Apaches, then by a gang of scalphunters led by Telly Savallas. Ossie Davis is the runaway house-slave hoping to get to Mexico and freedom. They have great chemistry and are very funny together. The film begins with Burt rescuing Ossie but planning to sell him, to them after a fight, encased in a mud that metaphorically erases their colour differences, sharing a horse and continuing in their quest to get the furs back. Shelley Winters plays the Western equivalent of a gangster’s moll, a completely stereotypical part, and is rather miraculous with it: nothing has dated about her performance except her hairdo. This gif, your daily Burt, is from near the end of the film:
When Shelley Winters took on small roles because they were great parts, she had herself billed as Miss Shelley Winters, like Miss Ruth Chatterton or all the other stars of yesteryear with pretensions to being great artists. The appellation never felt pretentious on her, partly because she was a great artist, partly because she was the kind of gal who told her audience about her annual trysts with Burt Lancaster.
In the great scene below Miss Shelley Winters as ‘Dixie Evans’ reveals how the studios in the classic era exploited bit players like her, women who were already damaged in some way, hired them for their figures, kept them hanging around with bit roles, exchanged sexual favours for the expectation of larger roles that never came, and used them to entertain visiting dignitaries. Cheaper than hiring hookers. Odets knew how to write, albeit a bit floridly, and he was part of that world and knew what he was talking about. And Shelley had been one of those girls for a long time before her eventual success, and had roomed with Marilyn Monroe: she also knew and she could certainly act it out and communicate it.
A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.
The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film, to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.
In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.
The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’
To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.
Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating? Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.
Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.
There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance. Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).
In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’
Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.
The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).
First meeting with Gloria
Earl’s a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.
In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.
Second Meeting with Gloria
One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.
There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky, my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.
In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.
The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:
Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.
The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”
It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.