Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) New York Tail Fin Noir

This is one of the great New York Film Noir.

I have a special affinity for this film, which I'll explain later. It's also one of the films cited in most Aficio-noirdo's lists as one of the last of the Classic Noirs, the other being Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958).

This film was directed by Robert Wise director of Born to Kill (1947), The Set-Up (1949), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), I Want to Live! (1958), it was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, and the screenplay was by Abraham Polonsky. As one of Hollywood's writers blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Polonsky had to use a front, John O. Killens, a black novelist and friend of Belafonte's, also credited is writer Nelson Gidding.

The excellent crisp stylistically noir cinematography (some of it infrared) of New York City and Upstate New York, filled with beautiful monochrome compositions was by Joseph C. Brun (Walk East on Beacon! 1952), Girl of the Night (1960), Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965)) and the jazzy Music was by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. This film was one of the first productions from Harry Belafonte's own company, HarBel Productions.

The film stars four Classic Noir Vets with a total of twenty six Film Noir between them. Robert Ryan, who specialized in crazed, on the verge of out of control nut jobs. Shelley Winters, the eternal hottie in her own mind, who in later years, never seemed to realize she was way past her use by date. Everybody's grandpa Ed Begley. And Gloria Grahame, whose real life bizarre sexual peccadillos rivaled that of even the kinkyest Film Noir.

In addition to the above, and also with an excellent performance in his film noir debut is the "King Of Calypso" Harry Belafonte. Harry's is a very moving performance of basically a marginally good guy, Johnny Ingram, who has taken every wrong direction through the back alleys of life.

Johnny Ingram (Belafonte)

He's a cool cat, a musician, plays a bluesy vibraphone in a smoky Harlem night club. A snappy dresser who tools around the upper West Side in a white 1957 Austin-Healey 100/6 runabout.

1957 Austin-Healey 100/6 runabout 

Johnny and his daughter

Johnny's wife (Kim Hamilton)
He's a gamblin man. The odds have been against him. He tapped out long ago. A losing streak has him paying the vig on $7,000 to a mobbed up character named Bacco (Will Kuluva). Because of this he's an estranged husband whose wife (Kim Hamilton) threw him out long ago. Johnny is a walking contradiction,  he has a girlfriend, but he's also a dedicated father who still loves his daughter, regularly taking her on outings to Central Park, the Wollman Skating rink, and the zoo.

Dave Burke (Ed Begley)

Ed Begley is Dave Burke, a disgraced NYPD cop. He refused to testify to state investigators and did a year for contempt. He lives alone with his dog in a West Side Drive residence hotel. He's on a downhill slide and wants a bigger piece of the pie before he kicks off. Burke has a plan that he cooked up while on a hunting trip about a hundred miles up the Hudson in Melton, NY.

He noticed, while staying in a rented apartment above Kresge's 5 and 10 at the corner of 6th & Warren, that the bank across the street, has a carton of coffee and sandwiches from the Eagle Luncheonette delivered to a small back door, like clockwork every Thursday night at five after 6 PM. The man who does the delivery is a partially blind black man who wears sunglasses. Most of the factories around town pay on Fridays and the bank is is loaded with close to $200,000 in untraceable cash for payroll and deposit money from the stores. A half dozen clerks, a manager with a bad heart and a guard with glasses who's about to retire, stick around to straighten up the books. Most of the rest of the town is home eating supper. He figures you could take it with a water pistol. When the bank guard opens the door, a chain prevents the door from opening all the way and the box containing the coffee and sandwiches is slipped through the opening. Dave knows they can rush the bank then and force the guard to open the door at gunpoint.

Earl (Robert Ryan)

The proposition up at Dave's

"Don't beat out that Civil War jazz here..."
Dave needs a gunman, and a black man to carry out his bank heist. For the hooligan he recruits Earl Slater (Robert Ryan). Earl is an Oakie, excon, racist bigot, Southern hick. A hard boiled douche of a loser who lives off his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters). For the black man Dave thinks of Johnny. When Earl finds out that he must work with a black man he refuses the job. But after Earl and Lorry have a fight about money, and Earl gets a proposition from his upstairs neighbor Helen (Gloria Grahame), he decides to go along.

Earl Slater: There's only one thing wrong with it.
Dave Burke: What?
Earl Slater: You didn't say nothin about the third man being a nigger!
Dave Burke: Don't beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater! We're all in this together, each man equal. And we're taking care of each other. It's one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever. And I don't want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma! You got it?
Earl Slater: Well I'm with you, Dave. Like you said, it's just one role of the dice, doesn't matter what color they are. So's they come up seven.

For their parts in the job Dave is offering them both $50,000. Johnny doesn't want the job at first but serious threats against his family from Bacco and his three dollar bill-ish muscle Coco (Richard Bright) convinces Johnny to go along.

Bacco: I'll kill you and everything you own!

Bacco (Will Kuluva)

 "I'll kill you and everything you own!"

 Coco (Richard Bright)
When Johnny hears the details of the plan, he comes up with the brilliant idea that if he shows up with a slightly larger box of coffee and sandwiches the guard is gonna have to undo the chain to open the door wider, making getting in the bank even easier.

They set things up. Dave buys a beater a1951 Chevrolet Styleline De Luxe and installs a souped up engine. They head up to Melton on Thursday, Dave and Earl in the car and Johnny on the bus. Dave and Earl are dressed like hunters, Earl drops Dave off along a road and they spend the day walking the fields with shotguns bird hunting around Melton. Johnny hangs out in town waiting for 6:00PM.

At about two hours before six, they all rendezvous down along the crumbling industrial Hudson River waterfront. There, racial tensions between Johnny and Earl flair up again and Dave has to smooth things out. Right before 6:00PM Johnny puts on an apron, a white counterman hat, and sunglasses. He grabs up the fake food order. He's also supposed to get the car keys from Earl but Earl, wanting to be in control, refuses to hand them over. To prevent a fight Dave grabs the keys. Then Dave heads into position outside the cafe, his job is to deliberately walk into the real counterman and knock the box order for the bank out of his hands. Johnny replaces him. The plan goes well, they get into the bank and they stuff the cash into the game bag built into Dave's hunting vest.

Dave is spotted, by pure freakish dumb chance, when he leaves the side door of the bank. A cop paying attention see's Dave coming out the door as he was just passing by. The suspicious cop tells him to halt.  It all goes Noirsville when Earl starts blasting away from inside the doorway at the cop. The cop returns fire and Dave with the getaway car keys gets shot and is bleeding out on the sidewalk.


1959 Chevy Bel Air tail fins lt.

This shot  is a real hoot, here it is 1958, High Bridge on the Major Deegan along the Harlem River and there is a frickin' traffic jam in the same place it's always been at the exit for the George Washington Bridge, you'd think in 60 years they'd fix it.

The fictitious Melton, notice nearer  the bottom of the map the real location Hudson

Warren Street, Melton (Hudson, NY)

Lorry (Shelley Winters)

Tail fins

Helem (Gloria Grahame)

The Rip Van Winkle Bridge 

30 cents a gallon in 1958

Melton (Hudson), Hudson River waterfront with Athen's lighthouse and the Catskill Mountains in the background

1951 Chevrolet Styleline De Luxe

Triboro Bridge over the Harlem River

Tali fins rt.

The film is cooly knit, with a tight dramatic buildup that is masterfully directed by Robert Wise. The use of the real New York City and the town and environs about Hudson, NY, give the film gravitas and an aura of realism.

There are also small vignettes that enforce both the racial biases and Earl's hair trigger temper. A sequence in Dave's apartment building with a black elevator operator whose cordial attempts at civility with Earl result in stone cold silence. Followed by a similar situation with Johnny going up in the same elevator, where the repartee is warm, almost folksy.  There is a sequence where Johnny berates his ex wife for hosting a parent-teacher association meeting in her apartment, showing a bit of his own bias against white folk.

Another vignette emphasizes Earl's instability. He's in a neighborhood bar knocking back a few, a soldier (Wayne Rogers) on leave is demonstrating some combat moves to a couple of chicks and guys. When the soldier and one of the guys accidentally bump into Earl, it sets him off. He challenges the soldier, and things escalate into violence.

Black actor Sidney Poitier's break through roles in the 50s, along with this Harry Belafonte performance as one of three equal rogues, in this particular film was one of the pivotal ones in the way black Americans were depicted in films, reflecting the early trending inevitability of the looming Civil Rights Movement. Ryan nails unhinged wacko, Begley convinces as the slightly befuddled over confidant mastermind. Winters is motherly almost babying Earl along, and Grahame is interesting as a slightly off, neglected, housewife, smouldering with an unfulfilled kitchen sink sexuality who is overly attracted to bad boy Earl.

The special affinity I have for Odds Against Tomorrow came after I moved from Montana to upstate New York. I discovered the old riverfront town of Hudson, N.Y., while fly-fishing for striped bass on their annual spring spawning run. Targeting stripers is a nighttime endeavor, and nearby Hudson in the early hours of a foggy morning is the epitome of Noirsville.

Hudson had an infamous past. Hudson was a red light city, a wide open town of ill repute, the "Sin Capital of the East." At the height of its bawdiness, in the 1920's and 1930's, Diamond Street was the "main street" of prostitution. It could boast of 15 brothels, and the city in toto of no less than 50 bars. Prostitute totals have been estimated at between 50 to 75, working the establishments. The rates back in 1939 was $2 for a Straight Party, $2 for a BJ, $2.50 for a Swallow, $3 for a Half & Half,  $3.50 for a Trip Around The World, kinky or unusual stuff was priced on request. All night stays for $15, and the whole house for $300. Things were getting so notorious that the town changed the name of the street from Diamond to Columbia to ward off gawkers.

In 1949 a Diamond/Columbia Street Madam made between $20-30,000 a year a Hudson cop made $2,000. You could see where the power was. The end came when Senator Estes Kefauver in Washington, began ratcheting up The Big Heat on organized crime and vice. New York's Governor Dewey in Albany, trying to head off what could be a big embarrassing political scandal, targeted Diamond/Columbia Street for a big showcase raid on June 23, 1950. They shut it all down.

Read more about Hudson, NY here, and there is also an excellent book Diamond Street, Hudson, N.Y. by Bruce Edward Hall.

Eight and a half years later Robert Wise filmed Odds Against Tomorrow in Hudson. Hudson filled in for the town of Melton, and incredibly quite a few of the films locations haven't changed at all in the almost 60 years since 1959. I'll redo in a new piece an old then and now post that got destroyed in the recent Photobucket image extortion racket.

Today with a lot of the old factories gone Hudson has revived itself as a collectables mecca, with quite a few of the storefronts on Warren Street now housing various types of antique stores, and trendy restaurants.

Screencaps are from the MGM DVD. 10/10

No comments:

Post a Comment