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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Odd Man Out" (Carol Reed, 1947)

In an old Lester Bangs piece (not that there have been any new Lester Bangs pieces since the early 80s, but you get my drift) that I can't find in either of the late critics' anthologies, Bangs recounts, with considerable bemusement, an observation made by Deep Purple organist Jon Lord during an early-70s interview with the future rock dinosaurs. "What's wrong with being a journeyman?" asked Lord, without any apparent irony. That Lord posed this question after the fizzling of such ambitious experiments as In Rock and guitarist Ritchie Blackmore's subsequent riff-monster redefinition of the group of course speaks to Lord's own personal disappointments but suggests a certain nobility involved with the concept of soldiering on. Of course, to Bangs, settling for being a journeyman was capitulating to mediocrity. Bangs was an all-or-nothing, go-for-broke character. During his own struggles with alcoholism, he marveled as what he saw as the near-perverse willpower of the "normal" social drinker, earnestly asking a friend who could take it or leave it alone and was content with a glass of wine at dinner, "Don't you crave OBLIVION?"

This all brings us, in a roundabout way, to Carol Reed. The recent Criterion DVD release of his 1939 Night Train To Munich, a thoroughly enjoyable contra-Nazi thriller scripted by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner Launder, has hit some cinephiles and aspiring cinephiles with the force of revelation, e.g., fostered or revived in some the notion that, hey, Carol Reed, whose career began as a journeyman, albeit a highly skilled one, in the British film industry, was actually a great/inspired director well before his masterpiece, 1949's The Third Man.

The traditional line of demarcation for Reed in this respect had been the 1947 thriller Odd Man Out, starring James Mason as an Irish nationalist on the run after suffering an injury during a botched robbery. Abjuring the metaphysical/symbolical bent of another Irish-dude-on-the-run tale, The Informer, Odd Man Out still bristles with Contemporary Significance in much the same way that the Birth-of-the-Cold-War Third Man does, and, as with The Third Man, delivers a truckload of suspense thrills, set-pieces, chiaroscuros and interesting camera angles that continue to divert for many years after the Contemporary Significance has abated. It also features a superbly frantic performance—a star-making one, even!—from the youngish Mason.

Interesting, then, that there's no new domestic DVD release of the film; one would think it a natural library title for some enterprising label. As it stands, the only extant domestic edition at the moment is a sub-par 1999 issue from Image Entertainment that is currently fetching frankly absurd prices at Amazon. But back in 2006, Netwerk, a label that doesn't normally deal such distinguished editions, put out a version of Odd Man Out that boasted, a) a really terrific-looking new restoration/transfer (nice screen captures here, no?), b) a booklet with a good historical essay and some nice reproductions of original press materials, and c) some solid video extras mostly focusing on star Mason—interviews, a documentary on him and his background, and so on.

The picture is always an exceptionally tight, involving one for thriller fans and such, but does it indeed mark Carol Reed's shift from journeyman to master, and was he ever really a master in the first place, handful of great films he was involved in notwithstanding? The idea that he was a preferred director of the Hitchcock-disliking Graham Greene places Reed in an interesting perspective, yes, but we should also allow that on close examination one of the things that makes Night Train so much fun is its Gilliat-Laudner Launder script, which among other things features the quintessential blinkered Englishmen Charters and Caldicott, who also figure in their scenario for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. What makes this reviewer trust Sarris' "Less Than Meets The Eye" classification for Reed is not so much the heights he hit as the depths of leaden, ostensibly distinguished, and big-budgeted...well, mediocrity he sank to. Sarris does not equivocate: "The decline of Reed since Outcast of the Islands is too obvious to be belabored." Anyone who has had to sit through Trapeze, let alone The Agony and the Ecstasy, can't help but agree. Such films, and the ups and downs of the Reed filmography between Night Train To Munich and Odd Man Out suggest that the Reed masterworks—this picture, The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, Outcast of the Islands among them—were not so much happy accidents (that's too withholding a term) but instances in which the collaborative nature of filmmaking yielded its best fruits, when a great story and great shooting and fine acting were pulled together by a confident master of craft. Nothing wrong with that, even if it does make you kind of a journeyman.

This seems like the worst of auteurism, though, to insist that because Reed made bad pictures, he can’t possibly be a great director, and his achievements must be credited to others. Why not just say he was a director who made some great movies, some so-so movies, and some bad movies, usually in collaboration with others (like most directors). I mean, we all cheerfully accept that a great novelist can write some bad books, a great band can release some bad records, and a great poet can write some bad poems; why this insistence that directorial greatness is an all-or-nothing proposition?
You didn’t mention The Man Between, which is, at the very least, a good film, which I foudn also a bit more entertaining than Odd Man Out. Not as daring perhaps, but still…As far as second world war progaganda goes The Way Ahead is also quite good. Anyway, Hitchcock had his duds, too.
“This seems like the worst of auteurism, though, to insist that because Reed made bad pictures, he can’t possibly be a great director…” Um, who’s insisting, FB? I note that Sarris “does not equivocate.” I then cite the unpleasant experiences that are “Trapeze” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” I then say that “the ups and downs of the Reed filmography…SUGGEST [emphasis mine] that the masterworks…were instances,” etc. And from that you get “insist” and “the worst of auteurism.” I’m sorry, I gotta call a little bit of a foul here. I understood that my assertions were going to cause some contention, which is one reason I chose to couch them in relatively careful language. I don’t think I’m weaseling here when I say I was throwing out ideas rather than presuming to render a definitive verdict.
Note: It’s Frank Launder, not Laudner. Thoughts: Lindsay Anderson believed Reed declined because he had “fallen into the hands of Americans,” which sounds rather gangsterish. David Lean speculated that Reed “lost his courage” — particularly his ability to hold a shot until it really made an impression, as with the end of The Third Man. The Fallen Idol is just a perfect film, it seems to me. Earlier Reeds like Bank Holiday and A Girl Must Live and Girl in the News certainly fit snugly into the “lightly likable” category. Seems to me Reed was a good director with good material, a dull director with dull material, and a great director with great material.
@ David Cairns: “LAUNDER”? That CAN’T be right. Oh, wait… @anitaschwarz: Oh, I get it. Yeah, it’s okay.
Fine, fine, then I’ll revise to “It seems like foolish auteurism to suggest that making some bad pictures along with some good means a filmmaker must be kicked off the Great Director mountain.” But my point holds: The great Reed movies are great in no small part because the direction is very, very good (along with the other elements over which the director may have less control, from script to costume design). That other Reed movies are bad does not retroactively invalidate what Reed did well on the good ones. To suggest otherwise is to indulge in the worst tendency of auteurist criticism: Building pedestals for a personal pantheon rather than looking at movies. Auteur theory is terrifically useful when it’s applied as a heuristic—-it lets you treat all scenic elements, even those the director may not have personally created, as semiotic elements, which makes very rich readings of the cinematic text possible. But when you start to actually believe that directors are the authors of films, you not only embrace a view of filmmaking wholly at odds with how films are actually made, you also end up with silly conundrums like “If he made both good and bad films, how could he possibly be a good director?” as though a director exists, like God, outside of time. It’s an appealing notion for the Cahiers crowd, as it pulls attention towards the director and away from the movie, but it’s not, y’know, true, and about as relevant as pondering whether Superman can beat up Captain Marvel. (He can)
That’s well argued. For the record, Reed seems to have been very involved in developing the script of The Third Man, as was Selznick. Not that either of them could have hoped to have done what Greene did.
Mmm-hmm. Well, personal pantheons are just that: personal. How they’re applied critically is a matter for debate, for sure. But I do think, though, that auteur theory is valuable as more than just a heuristic. I’ve been on a few film sets, and in a few editing rooms; I’ve even “acted” in a couple of films. One of the most interesting things about participating in the making of “The Girlfriend Experience” was interacting with everybody who contributed to it, from the writers to the wardrobe coordinator to the production designer and so on, and seeing everything they did (and each one made very substantial contributions), and then improvising all of my dialogue—that is, “writing” a portion of the film—myself, just as every other performer in the film did. And for all that, the finished film is very much, in a very definite sense, a 100% Steven Soderbergh picture. Everyone else’s mileage may vary, of course, but I still find auteurism a useful tool. As for “pulling attention towards the director and away from the movie,” well, you know, I thought I’d show some mercy in this rumination and not even bring up “Flap.” Anyone remember THAT one?
For my money ODD MAN OUT is better than THE THIRD MAN. I can’t believe it is out of print on DVD in R1. It is available for streaming on NetFlix but I can’t vouch for the picture quality.
Normally I don’t like to level criticism of the “put up or shut up” variety since that means I would probably have no right to critique the worst drek that Hollywood disseminates, but in the case of Bangs’ and Sarris’ comments, what exactly have they produced music or film wise to look down their noses at artists who take pride in their craft? So when you say that the “auteur theory is valuable more than just a heuristic” is that because it makes it paramount now that directors have the final say on their product? If you are arguing that then I agree. If however you are using the “auteur” theory for ranking directors like baseball statistics to rank ball players, then that’s not very helpful or insightful. And is it really fair though to compare Soderbergh and Reed to determine who is the most deserving of the “auteur” moniker? They are making films at totally different time periods – putting your personal stamp on a film is de rigueur now to be taken as a “serious” filmmaker. Back in Reed’s day, that was not the case. Still his best films can’t really be mistaken for anyone else’s. As for Odd Man Out, sure it’s a bit hokey at times, but it’s beautiful and sincere -and should be looked at within the context of when it was released. I hope Criterion does do a release since the film was just restored in a stunning new print. And as for audio commentary, wouldn’t it be interesting to get Roman Polanski to talk about the film since he always cites this film as having quite the impact on him? Of course, he may be a bit distracted at the moment…
Well, Bangs’ single “Let It Blurt” does fade with a pretty epic Jody Harris/Robert Quine guitar duel, so there’s that. On the other hand, “Machine Head” is also one of my all-time favorite Classic Rock albums. Also, Lester’s totally frigging dead, so no fair asking him that question. I also love it when people say “I don’t normally do this” before they, you know, do it. Jeez, it’s like every time I suggest an argument someone crawls out of the woodwork to say I’m being just terribly unfair to Carol Reed. What are you people, related to him or something? For the record, I agree that “Odd Man Out” deserves not only a domestic DVD release but even a Blu-ray. It’s a largely terrific film. As are many Reed films.
You mean every time you suggest an argument, people… start arguing? That does happen, it’s true.
Fine, fine – let me amend my comment to "I realize that there is a certain hypocrisy on my part in leveling criticism of “the put up or shut up” variety at Bangs and Sarris blah blah blah…." Your comment about Bangs makes me think of those fellows from High Fidelity, trading in rock ’n roll arcana to establish street cred…which kind of reminds me of the kind of arguments I read here…. Maybe you should be grateful that anybody is bothering to read your post – let alone responding to it.
I don’t mind the arguing. The quality and now the humorlessness of the arguments, that’s another thing. Before I go off to contemplate what I ought to be grateful for, I do have to insist that judging critical thought according to a what-have-you-yourself-done-for-art-lately? standard is all well and good, if you’re okay with only having critics who are also artists. You got this a lot in poetry: Randall Jarrell, Vachel Lindsay, etc.. In pop music, not so much; do Donald Fagen’s “Premiere” columns count? Or the blog by that guy from The Mountain Goats? Does Sasha Frere-Jones still have that band? In film also not so much; what, would you count James Agee, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader? Obviously the retort concerning Bangs’ single was at least partially jocular, but there are those who would argue that he was a sufficiently brilliant prose stylist that his criticism alone qualifies him as an artist. Wait, I’m sorry, what am I even doing here? missusk, having reduced me to a minor character in a Nick Hornby novel and declared my existence borderline meaningless, clearly expects I just go back to the showers or something. As for the Fuzzster, I’m wondering if you’re working your way to a “no great directors, just great films” unified field theory or something…which obviously will not be contained by this mere thread…
I hadn’t thought of being quite so radical about it, but… but yeah, maybe, actually. I’ll certainly take a great film over a great director any day, in theory or in practice.
re: critics and criticisms – that’s why I put that caveat in the beginning of my original post. I actually like Bangs and a lot of the other critics you mention – just the way you presented them, it comes across as a little snarky is all. And there are a lot worse things to be compared to than those hapless characters from High Fidelity – you can’t accuse them of lacking in humour (albeit unintentional on their part).
Had to throw in two cents, since no one has seen fit to mention Reed’s OLIVER! I tried watching it once, but my bias is so solidly set in favor of Lean’s adaptation that watching Reed’s color musical was pretty much impossible. Britain’s film output in the late forties represents a high-water mark, not just for Britain but for film-making as a whole at that time. Reed’s three films from that period, along with Lean’s two Dickens adaptations and Powell & Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS ( a color film I know, but WHAT a color film), all comprise an even half-dozen of what I consider to be essential additions to any DVD library. As for ODD MAN OUT (a truly beloved film), I sure would like an explanation as to WHY this film has remained unavailable on DVD for so long here in the States. While your mention of Lester Bangs is appreciated ( his critical writings were a big influence on me in my formative years, his departure from CREEM magazine made all the difference in the world, it went from being worthwhile to forgettable, you had fierce critical acuity combined with a wicked sense of humor with Bangs at the helm), can’t say that I share your appreciation for Deep Purple, I leaned more toward the organ stylings of Manzarek’s Doors as opposed to what DP had to offer. Just a matter of personal taste I guess.

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