Odds Against Tomorrow [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (13th October 2016).
The Film

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959)

Former policeman David Burke (played by Ed Begley) has planned out a bank heist at a small time bank in upstate New York. The plan is exact to the tee: the time that the side entrance would open with little protection was when the nearby black delivery man would bring the bank tellers coffee after closing time. Burke cannot do it alone so he calls upon some men to help with the task. He calls on Earle Slater (played by Robert Ryan), an ex-con who is having a hard time adjusting to the straight life with no real opportunities for a man that served hard time for manslaughter. While initially reluctant to get back into crime, a promise of 50,000 dollars makes it a hard offer to pass up. Johnny Ingram (played by Harry Belafonte) is a musician and singer at a jazz club who is down on his luck with debt. His horserace betting addiction has caused him to have a few thousand dollars owed to gangster Bacco (played by Will Kuluva), and Bacco has waited long enough to collect. Johnny is desperate and knows that if he doesn’t pay up, his ex-wife and child would have to pay the consequences.

Burke introduces the team together - with him being the brains behind the operation, Earle being the brawl of the heist, and Johnny being the initial entry in as disguising himself as the black delivery man. Although money may be the driving force of the operation, but there underlies tension between the men. When Earle learns that the delivery man they need to impersonate is black and they need Johnny for the switch, he gets concerned with having to work with a “nigger” for the job. For Johnny he has always been repressed by the world of the white man and does not want to stoop down to lower standards of the racial minority. The men must fight against their personal hatred for the time being, but how long until someone snaps?

“Odds Against Tomorrow” was produced by HarBel Productions - formed by singer, musician, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte. At a time when positive main roles for blacks in the film industry was limited, it was an extremely rare case for a black star to have his own production company. During the 1950s and 1960s, both Belafonte and fellow actor and close friend Sidney Poitier were leaders both in the field of entertainment and true positive faces of the civil rights movement that showcased their talents to the finest. For the adaptation of the novel by Nathaniel Rich, Belafonte chose director Robert Wise - who had worked with Orson Welles and Val Lewton in the 1940s, the boxing dramas “The Set-Up” (1949) and “Somebody up There Likes Me” (1956), and the science fiction classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). Wise was offered the director’s chair and co-producer for the hardhitting social drama plus heist film, but there was one thing about the screenplay that Belafonte was reluctant to tell - that it was co-scripted by blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky - his first since being named one of the “Hollywood 10” in 1951. Polonsky’s name was kept secret and his name credited as “John O. Killens” on screen, but Wise was excited and delighted to be able to work on a social drama with a civil standpoint of what was right alongside Belafonte. There was a black writer with the name of John O. Killens who was a friend of Belafonte, and his name was used as a front for Polonsky, so the real John O. Killens did not have anything to do with the film except to cover the identity of Polonsky.

As for the casting of Earle, Robert Ryan was cast as the white tough guy, a dream casting for Belafonte. Although Ryan may have had a tough guy and hard hitting persona on screen with many of his outcast and outlaw roles, he was a humanitarian and champion for civil rights at the time, like Belafonte. The two leads of Belafonte and Ryan as Johnny and Earle respectively were great opposing forces, yet both have much in common - both are men struck down by society, both have a dim but shining light of women in their lives. The character of Johnny doesn’t seem to have anything going his way - he has limited time to spend with his daughter, he doesn’t get much respect as a musician, and the few thousand in debt weighs heavily on him. Even if his life seems of that of a broken man he certainly doesn’t look the part. Johnny keeps his cool and is a very much a gentlemen, but one wrong comment or gesture can make him take a stand for himself. As for Earle he has trouble finding honest work but at least his girlfriend Lorry (played by Shelley Winters) tries to help him emotionally through his tough time, though her character’s screentime is quite limited to make a hard impact. For other supporting characters, Ed Begley as Burke and Will Kuluva as Bacco are both great in their roles - as the ex-cop and the gangster. Gloria Grahame makes an appearance as Helen the lusty housewife neighbor to Earle, but her role seems a bit wasted as the character and her motives do not make much of an impact on the plot. It’s almost as if they needed a sexy scene and placed it in there for some spice rather than for story.

As for the musical setting with the character of Johnny, Belafonte was able to secure John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet to score the film in a jazz standard, which worked out in great favor for Robert Wise - as it also happened to be his favorite band at the time. Like the film “Anatomy of a Murder” released the same year, both used a striking jazz score forgoing tradition of the norm in film music score and both films were challenging conventions in story. “Odds Against Tomorrow” is NOT the typical film of its day. It does not place racism into the light, but it puts it in the shadows, through eyes of the bad guys against each other, but questions are subconsciously thought like “what made them that way?” It is also a bleak film in regards to the racial divide - the famous (or infamous) “apocalyptic ending” is not one that resolves any easy answer but makes viewers question themselves and their society of the time, rather than just aspects of what happened on screen, and for that it succeeds. It is very well directed by Wise, well shot by cinematographer Joseph Brun in harsh black and white with many low angle shots, and well performed by the leads. But “Odds Against Tomorrow” is not a perfect film by all means - but it is a thoroughly enjoyable late period film-noir with a strong message underlying in the story.

The film was not a success by any means - the only award nomination it received was a Golden Globe for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding” and it lost to “The Diary of Anne Frank” - which was a deserving film but the award does seem a little shallow in name compared to the major categories. The film was mostly forgotten about through the years. Belafonte didn’t appear in another film for more than 10 years but continued his work in social activism and music. Robert Ryan continued acting in stellar classics in the following years with “The Wild Bunch”, “The Dirty Dozen”, “Patton”, and more while also committing to the civil rights movement. He was introduced to Dr. Martin Luther King Kr. by Belafonte and served as a part of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and was part of the short lived “Artists Help All Blacks” movement. Robert Wise also continued his successful career as a director with even more acclaim with his following musical films “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”, the atmospheric horror classic “The Haunting”, and the sci-fi films “The Andromeda Strain” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Years down the line the acclaim started to regenerate for the forgotten piece. Director Jean Pierre Melville claimed to have watched more than 80 times with his personal print. Writer James Ellroy called it the best heist-gone-wrong film ever. Robert Wise held it high and proud as one of the best and most important films he had directed. And to restore some dignity, in 1997 Abraham Polonsky’s screen credit was restored.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can be played back on region B and region free players

Video

BFI presents the film in 1080p in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. There are good points and bad points about this transfer. I’ll start off with the bad: the 35 print used for the transfer was not in the best of shape. Scratches, tramlines, and specs, are everywhere throughout the print. The stock footage shots and the credit scenes stick out sorely with the most damage and heavier grain compared to the rest of the film, and even the best looking portions of the film look average at best. Maybe if they had used the original negative or a closer element to the negative than a 35mm positive element held at the BFI national archive, it may have looked better. Or possibly this was the best element available? In addition, the print has not been restored or cleaned up to the standards of many other BFI releases of the year and this is a disappointment. As for the good, the print was scanned at 2K resolution and so detail is very good, framing is great preserving the 1.33:1 theatrical ratio, and retains the hard black and white photography with no softness in the image, and no signs of noise reduction or grain reduction. Make no mistake- it really looks like you are watching a vintage film print and is miles ahead of the previously released DVD releases of the film.

The film is uncut with the original opening credits with Abraham Polonsky's name credited as "John O. Killens" for screenplay credit, with a runtime of 95:46.

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
The original English audio track is presented in lossless mono. Like the picture, the sound did not go through a restoration and so it suffers from defects. There are hisses and pops throughout with the start and end of reels sounding the worst in those terms, but it is closer to background noise rather than major damage. Dialogue is always easy to understand with no problems in hisses or damage to the dialogue portions, and music always sounds good with the jazz score by John Lewis. Again, it could have sounded much better with a full restoration.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font.

Extras

This is a dual format Blu-ray + DVD set with identical content on both discs, just with the Blu-ray having everything in high definition while the region 2 DVD has everything in standard definition PAL.

"Odds Against Tomorrow Post-Screening Q&A with Harry Belafonte" (49:14)
This post screening Q&A was held in 2009 and organized by the Film Noir Foundation, with Belafonte joined on stage by moderator Foster Hirsch. He discusses about the production of the film, his friendship with Poitier from the early days, the differences between the book and the film, the New York locations, the choice of music, working with Ryan and Wise and a lot more. The audio sounds good at the beginning but either there was a recording problem or mic problem but gets echoey about 10 minutes into the Q&A. The picture has some ghosting as well so it is not a very sharp looking extra. But the content is what is the drawing point and Belafonte shares some fascinating insights with humor injected.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Adrian Wooton on Odds Against Tomorrow" featurette (29:31)
In this new interview with chief executive of Film London Adrian Wooton, he talks about the noir genre at the time period, the harsh racial tension between the leads and the consequences, the direction by Wise, and more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"The Guardian Interview: Robert Wise at the National Film Theatre" (73:51)
This Q&A from August 10th 1995 has Robert Wise on stage talking about his career in film from the early works with Welles and Lewton, his hard hitting noirs, the grand musicals, Star Trek, and much more. “Odds Against Tomorrow” is talked about but only for a short instance, but the lengthy Q&A has a lot of indispensable information on his career.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"The John Player Lecture: Robert Ryan at the National Film Theatre" (audio only - plays over the film) (62:21)
This audio interview from February 1st 1969 has Robert Ryan talking frankly about his acting career in both film and stage. He talks about everything from playing hard hitting characters like the racially charged “Crossfire” and “Odds Against Tomorrow”, “The Set-Up” being one of his favorite roles, and how he was not interested in gratuitous sex and violence in film. Also touched upon is his work in racial equality and how many of his characters are counterparts to his real life commitment. This extra runs as an alternate audio channel to the main feature, running for the first 62:21 of the film, and the audio reverts back to the film’s audio track following the end of the lecture.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0

Theatrical Trailer (3:10)
The original theatrical trailer is presented here, though it should be noted that the on-screen text has been digitally recreated and overlayed on the textless element. It is somewhat noticeable that the text is not original. Did the BFI not have access to a trailer with text elements?
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 1.0 with no subtitles

12 Page Booklet
The booklet includes the essay “Images of Resistance: Odds Against Tomorrow” by writer and film programmer Tega Okiti, production stills, film credits, extras credits, notes about the presentation, and acknowledgements. Not the most feature packed booklet, but good information nonetheless.

A great amount of content has been included for the film and certainly surpasses the older DVD releases which had none. An excellent selection by the BFI.

Overall

“Odds Against Tomorrow” was a neglected noir of its time featuring an impressive cast and crew roster that deserves another look. BFI’s release is a bit underwhelming in terms of video and audio as it wasn’t given a full on restoration, but the lengthy extras make up for that with very informative content for the film and the men who made it. Recommended.

The Film: B Video: C+ Audio: C+ Extras: A Overall: B

 


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