A while back I was fortunate to review Robert Wise, The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan, a studious filmography about Robert Wise–of course. I say of course because, yes, the title of the book is titular, but I’m also referring to the tendency of American film critics to underrate the multi-award winning director.
It’s a total snob job, quite ridiculous. Certainly Wise had some missteps, but his greatest failing, according to his critics, is something that I won’t fault him for–directing a few sequences in the Orson Welles masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons.
That was his job. It fell on him to do what Orson Welles would not. Either that or quit.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a landmark film despite Robert Wise’s directorial contribution, not because of it. Everybody knows that.
Regardless, the rub against Wise is that he has no signature, which is another way of saying, he has no style. And that’s the worst thing you can say about an artist.
And it’s not true. Robert Wise did have a signature…
That’s it, if I had to sum it up in one word. And his signature of realism didn’t just manifest itself within the genre of realism–no. It’s in the precise, almost microscopic, sense of detail present in every one of his films, regardless of genre.
That Wise’s signature is subtle doesn’t mean that it is inferior.
It means it’s intelligent.
And that composition of grit and intelligence drapes the contours of noir quite nicely. In fact, I would argue that in terms of consistency, Wise’s most artful films come from noir and that his best noir, the racially hard edged, The Odds Against Tomorrow, starring a spectacular Robert Ryan and an impeccable Harry Belafonte, is unfairly overlooked when it comes to masterpieces and near masterpieces.
While Robert Wise–rightfully–would never be described as subversive, he did collaborate with subversive artists. One such artist was Harry Belafonte. Another was Abraham Polonsky.
In 1958 Belafonte was at the forefront in the intersection of looks, talent, charisma and civil rights. At considerable risk to his personal and professional security, he openly associated with Communists and Communist sympathizers within the entertainment industry who were egalitarian. As the CEO of HarBel Productions, he tapped black listed director and writer, Abraham Polonsky to write the screenplay for The Odds Against Tomorrow, while navigating the aftermath of the McCarthy investigations and participating in the modern civil rights movement.
Though jazz and noir had hooked up many times before, Belafonte literally links them with his portrayal of entertainer/musician, Johnny Ingram. The parallels and contrasts between character and performer are intriguing.
Like the character Johnny, Belafonte is a jazz enthusiast, who famously performed with Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis. But unlike Johnny, he is not a jazz purist. Belafonte is a stage actor, musician and pop artist who could–and did–sing just about anything.
Similarly, both character and artist are nightclub entertainers though Belafonte on a grand scale and Johnny not as much. Even so, if ornamentation is an indicator, Johnny makes a nice living if not for his gambling addiction, which has torn apart his marriage, separated him from his child and put him in debt to mobsters.
Like so many criminals, Johnny does not apologize for his choices. He is bitter about them, nonetheless.
Still, we are impressed as he suavely croons and plays the Marimba in a haunting rendition of My Baby’s Not Around with Modern Jazz Quartet at the club where he is employed. We admire him as he cruises the scene in a beautiful, white, convertible Corvette and we worry about him when he is confronted by a loan shark and his unapologetically gay henchmen.
And we worry about him because he is black.
It’s 1958…so we should be worried.
Johnny’s debt (and his beautiful, white, convertible Corvette) drive him to the apartment of Burke, (Ed Begley) a corrupt, disgraced former police officer living hand to mouth because his pension has been stripped. He’s the one, Burke is, who comes up with the “perfect” heist. At the apartment Johnny crosses paths with Slater, (Robert Ryan) an aging, vehemently racist, he-man desperate for a score.
In fact, all the characters are desperate in The Odds Against Tomorrow, except one.
There is Lorry–played by a terrific Shelly Winters–who despite being astute in the business world is attracted to Slater’s tough guy magnetism. Then there is Helen, Lorry and Slater’s next door neighbor, played by Gloria Grahame. She, too, is attracted to Slater–slovenly so.
Grahame sizzles as a defiantly promiscuous woman who is turned on by violence. Never lewd, her performance evokes both interest and disgust; it is brilliant.
And finally there is the newly single Ruth, (Kim Hunter) navigating her way around the landmines of mothering and breadwinning in a racist, sexist environment. Unlike her ex-husband, she is not bitter. Instead she is determined. She doesn’t shatter when Johnny accuses her of being cold. She doesn’t apologize for being responsible.
Under Wise’s generous direction, the talented cast channels his vision of stylistic verve tempered with wincing realism, creating an atmosphere of dread. And as fine of an ensemble cast as it is, it does have a stand out.
He is scary good as Slater, a racist creep who resents the hell out of the smarter, better looking, more successful Johnny. Slater is volatile and unsophisticated. What he is not, is stupid. Consequently he understands his impulses enough to anticipate his own failures as he lurches from one disappointment to another.
As Slater, Ryan creates a memorable heavy.
For all that, where The Odds Against Tomorrow ultimately excels is in the vision of its director. Allow me to set the opening scene:
It could be a stream, the way it ripples. But it’s not…
They could be leaves carried by the rippling. They are not…
It’s rainwater collected in a gutter; the rippling caused by wind pushing trash–not leaves–up an empty street.
It’s kind of beautiful. And it shouldn’t be.
It’s Robert Wise.