The location: a city in Northern Ireland. The plan: to rob this local business of its money, with a view to funding the organisation's fight against the British authorities. The leader: Johnny McQueen (James Mason), who has spent the last few months in hiding in the home of his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), after spending the months before that in prison, which he had escaped from. The gang are reluctant to admit it, but they are losing confidence in Johnny, and are not sure whether his place should be taken for the crime by one of his associates - turns out, they are right to be concerned...
Odd Man Out won the best British film award at the first Bafta ceremony, so it has a place in history right there, yet its merits divide opinion, and have done ever since its release way back when. Is it actually a haunting tale of the last moments of a man meeting his maker, or is it a too-simple thriller decked out with pretentious religious trappings that try to make its story more important than it really is? If the latter view is somewhat harsh, it's true that as the main character staggers about an unnamed Belfast, you can feel as if he could just settle down in one place and let somebody find him, then the film would not have gone on quite as long as it does.
And yet, after a first act that stresses the realism of the heist - for that's what this is, essentially a heist gone wrong movie - the spiritual path it takes is daring, no less for showing a character who audiences of the day would either see as a terrorist or a freedom fighter, with no middle ground. In the script, adapted from F.L. Green's then-bestselling, now pretty much forgotten novel, no sides are taken; you can approach the gang as you like, and do the same with the police who are tracking them down, often with guns drawn, neither overtly sympathetic but not exactly dastardly for that matter. You could say that the filmmakers were hedging their bets, but it does bring out a curious ambiguity.
The heist does indeed, predictably, go wrong when Johnny proves himself not up to the task and is shot, while being shot in return; he survives, the other man does not and although the gang try to grab Johnny and drag him into the getaway car, he falls out and in their panic they abandon him in the street. He spends the hours till nightfall in a state between delirium and consciousness, with the bullet wound doing its worst to his system, as the word is out, apparently through the whole city, that Johnny McQueen is the most wanted man in Northern Ireland. It is then Mason, who counted this role among his best, becomes gradually more angelic as he drifts closer to death.
The other characters he meets seem to recognise this otherworldliness in him and react accordingly, often in awe of him, but tempered with their recognition that he is dangerous to be around. Here on in that pretension which so rankles with some viewers goes into full effect, as Johnny hallucinates people who are not there (at one point in the bubbles of a spilled pint of beer - how's that for poetry?), as if you can practically see his soul being lifted out of his body with every step, every bleary-eyed expression, that Mason makes. Carol Reed showed himself a master of atmosphere that stood out in his most famous work, The Third Man, and the shots of starkly lit streets are something that he would return to in further films such as The Man Between, also starring Mason. With the religious angle underlined by such characters as the priest who wishes to hear Johnny's confession, and Robert Newton on excellent form as the crazed artist needing to capture the moment of death in his painting, Odd Man Out grows increasingly eccentric, but whether you buy into its faith is a personal matter. There was not much like it at the time, that's for sure. Music by William Alwyn.