Drama, Films I Love, Noir

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Odds Against Tomorrow is directed by Robert Wise. The film was one of two films to be produced by its star Harry Belafonte’s own production company – HarBel Productions. This is a film that I love very much. I recently treated myself and bought it on Blu-ray. I highly recommend that you purchase it in that format as it looks fantastic, there are some great extras on it to also enjoy.

This is a taut, atmospheric and extremely gritty film all about desperate people doing desperate things in order to survive. The film also takes a hard-hitting look at the issue of racism too. The final shot shows the stupidity of racism(and other prejudices) because we are all the same; we are all humans who are trying to live, and when we die it doesn’t matter what skin colour, sexual orientation, gender etc we are, as we are all equally dead and are the same in death. So what the hell are we wasting time fighting and hating one another for when we are alive? As the film goes along we also see that Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan’s characters are more similar than they are dissimilar, both in terms of their struggles and prejudices, and also in their mutual run of bad luck.

The film was shot out on location in New York and for me this helps to give the film a very realistic feel. In terms of its atmosphere and look this film reminds me quite a bit of Sweet Smell Of Success. The realistic look of this film coupled with the performances and the characters stories, make this one give off an almost documentary vibe. This story manages to have an impact because it comes across as being so real and true to life. 

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The robbery in progress. Screenshot by me.

Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan both deliver two of the best performances of their respective acting careers. They are both excellent as the two tightly wound men edging ever closer to their respective breaking points.

Both Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan make us care about their characters and convey to us how frustrated they are with their respective situations. Both tell us much about their characters simply by an expression, or by the way they respond to something someone says to them. 

This film was quite daring for the time it was made in because it showed black and white people as being the same. In this film Johnny and Earle are both depicted as having good times and bad, they each have difficulties where their romantic relationships are concerned and they both need money.

Despite their mutual hatred for one another, Earle and Johnny are actually very similar men. We can tell these are just two broken, lonely and essentially decent guys just trying to survive and get by doing what they have to. Both men love their wives very much and are trying to make a better life for their families. The film shows us that we are all people and if we look beyond our petty prejudices we will find more similarities with one another than we will find differences.

Dave Burke (Ed Begley)is a bitter ex detective who is living a pretty crummy life. He has planned what sounds like a perfect bank robbery. He just needs two people to help him do the job. He enlists embittered, WW2 veteran and ruthless killer, Earle Slater (Robert Ryan)and heavily in debt, gambling singer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to help him. Each man stands to get $50,000 for their part in the robbery. 

The robbery should be pretty simple but Johnny and Earle’s mutual hatred of each other causes tension and chaos. Earle is openly racist and Johnny is not one to stand by and just take that foul rubbish lying down, he returns the hatred, and Earle doesn’t like it one bit. It all leads to a tense and violent finale. 

The main trio of Ryan, Belafonte and Begley are all excellent. Begley is another actor in this who tells you much with just an expression or glance. I believe from the way he reacts to racist comments that his character is not a racist, and that is quite an interesting angle to the film. His character Dave is also shown to be friends with Johnny and they have known each other for years. Dave doesn’t like Earle’s attitude and he is shown to be openly disgusted by Earle’s horrible words and attitudes. I also find Dave an interesting character because he started out on the right side of the law and has now joined the wrong side.

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Johnny puts his anger into his singing. Screenshot by me.

Harry Belafonte plays Johnny as a tightly wound man who has got where he has in the world due to his own skill and determination and nothing else. There are times when he wants to strike out at the  people giving him racial abuse, but he stops himself knowing there will be trouble if he does.

I love the nightclub sequence where his eyes show the undisguised hatred he feels for the gangster he is heavily in debt to. Watch Harry’s eyes throughout the film, those eyes convey so much about what Johnny is feeling and going through.

I also love how the way that Harry sings in this film, he shows us that singing is a way for Johnny to be able to release all that rage and distress building up inside of him; Johnny may not be able to take his rage out on the people hurting him, but he sure can take it out on the microphone. 

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Earle. Screenshot by me.

Robert Ryan plays Earle like a ticking time bomb. This man has a temper which is on a real short fuse. He feels less of a man due to his dire situation and thinks money will make him something more.

Keep your eye on Robert throughout and you will see him convey how on edge Earle is, this guy is just waiting to unleash his pent up anger on anyone who happens to be around.

In real life Robert was the exact opposite of the racist Earle, he was a very liberal man and was involved in Civil Rights; the fact that he so convinces as such a despicable character as Earle shows what a gifted actor he was.

Shelley Winters, Kim Hamilton and Gloria Grahame play the dames in the lives of Earle and Johnny. Kim is Ruth, Johnny’s ex wife and the mother of his adored daughter. Ruth loves him but she cannot take his lifestyle, nor can she stand his hatred of white people. Ruth will always love him, but she can’t be with him anymore. Kim is excellent and conveys so much by her facial expressions alone.

Shelley is Earle’s much younger wife Lorry, she loves him dearly and with her he can be vulnerable and himself. It is in scenes with her that we see his tender and gentle nature come out into the open.

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Earle and Lorry share a moment. Screenshot by me.

Gloria Grahame is Helen, a friend of Lorry’s who lives in the flat above theirs. She wants to be taken out of herself and treated as a woman (an escape from the drudgery of her life)she fancies Earle and he knows it.

Earle has never cheated on Lorry, but one night he and Helen are talking and it’s obvious to them (and certainly to us)that they are going to have sex. The tension between them is electric in this sequence. Sadly the actresses don’t have as much to do on screen as the men do, but they are all excellent and make an impression when they are on screen.

Keep an eye out for Richard Bright (best known for playing Michael’s loyal bodyguard Neri, in The Godfather)as a homosexual henchman of the gangster that Johnny is in debt to. Wayne Rogers (of MASH fame)also has a small role as a soldier who gets on the wrong side of Earle.

I’m always left feeling sorry for those who love and are waiting for these men to return from their date with crime. There’s Earle and Johnny’s wives, and David’s beloved pet dog, the one thing on earth who appears to love him and who is loved in return. They all have my symapthy and I’m always left wondering what happened to them all following the events that end this film.

My favourite scenes are the following. Johnny taking his daughter to the park. Lorry telling Earle he can borrow money from her. Johnny’s funny exchange with the elevator operator. Earle punching the soldier in the bar. The entire final 30 minutes of the film.

This story comes across as just one example of thousands more like it. We are all (whether we are men or women) trying to escape from some pain or perceived weakness, we all want a better life and we are all trying to get by. This film captures the lonelieness and problems of humanity well. It also shows us that racism is so stupid as we are all the same, can’t we make some effort to get along while we are living on this planet?

This film is a real highpoint in the careers of all in the cast and of the director Robert Wise. I’d love to know what you think of this film? Please leave your comments below.

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10 thoughts on “Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)”

      1. The Set-Up and On Dangerous Ground in the past. The Naked Spur just recently along with Day of The Outlaw which I would really recommend. I will look out for Beware My Lovely now thanks!

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    1. Loved reading your take on this one. Very happy to find another fan. I especially loved the quote you added from Robert, about him fearing the backlash if he took the role of Earle. I think that fact that he could do such a convincing job playing horrible characters shows his talent. Off screen he was the polar opposite of the men he played. Acting is acting, I’d be worried if people in the audience actually thought Robert was the characters he was playing!

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  1. I’m so very excited to see this one. Had it a while but there’s always something bustling its way in. Be love for exploring Robert Ryan titles and the addition of Harry Belafonte sounds wonderful. Even more buzzing to see it. Gonna nudge it up the list. Nice one Maddy 🙂

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