Saturday, December 12, 2009

Odds Against Tomorrow

This one delivers a sucker punch. It’s brilliant in a way that’s both tough and tender and touching and remorseless.

Based on a novel by famed TV writer William P. McGivern (1918-82, Adam 12, Kojak) and directed by the great Robert Wise (1914-2005, who had previously directed I Want To Live and subsequently directed the unforgettable West Side Story, The Haunting and The Sound Of Music), Odds Against Tomorrow is the story of Dave Burke (Ed Begley), an ex-NYC cop in the later-than-he-thinks autumn of his years, assembling a team of racist ne’er-do-well, Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), and a down-on-his-luck singer/gambler, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), to pull off an “easy” heist in an out-of-the-way backwater town that will solve all their financial woes.

Slater’s got a woman (Shelley Winters in a surprisingly small role that foreshadows her defining performance as Charlotte Haze) who earns the bread in his ramshackle life which, of course, repulses him. Johnny’s gambling debts are so out of control that his ex-wife (the great and beautiful Kim Hamilton) and young daughter (Lois Thorne, in a very believable performance – and one of the only known ones she ever gave) are being threatened. Dave Burke has been wronged for some unnamed reason that he feels he must somehow get justice for. So, while even Johnny knows a plan like this is doomed to fail, he and his disparate partners are desperate enough to comply.

Aside from the absolutely tremendous performances delivered by all, this last-of-the film noirs is remarkable in many ways. First, black people have human roles here – just like the white people. This was not too common in 1959, when this film was made. Ryan, who was an avowed civil-rights champion in real life, may play a racist here. But his character, Slater, realizes that he needs Belafonte’s Johnny much more than he cares to admit to achieve his own personal ends. Slater’s racist reactions and comments are all presented as “Civil War era” feelings his grand pappy might have possessed, but which have no place or validity now.

Secondly, there are all sorts of “alternative” characters presented in this fiction that are neither black nor white and neither all good nor all bad. It might be easy to place labels on some of these folks. But the film never brandishes them one way or the other. For example, Johnny’s ex-wife disapproves of his life and lifestyle (gambling, gangs, late-night gigs, etc.) as much as he disapproves of her way of trying to fit into the white man’s world (PTA, etc.) – but neither pushes their cause onto their daughter, whom they both obviously love and care for very much. And then there’s also the very gay Coco (Richard Bright, a great character actor famed for his appearance in the Godfather films, 1937-2006), who no one blinks at…including Johnny, who seems to be the apple of Coco’s eye. Even the gangster bosses have their sentimental sides.

And then, most notoriously, the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (1910-99, Force of Evil), writing as John O. Killens, wrote the remarkable screenplay. There were many drafts and many changes made along the way. But however it was done, the ending that was concocted for the film – which surely prefigures Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat - is brilliant, especially if it was trying to send some sort of message.

Additionally, Robert Wise gives this film a stunningly beautiful look that could have only come from a sensitive, intuitive and incredibly perceptive director (great opening titles too!).

Most of the film was shot in broad daylight. Most of the film was shot on location (the many New York City locales are simply spectacular as presented throughout the film – same goes for the Melton town shots). Some of the film was shot, amazingly, in infra-red, which gives the proceedings not only a haunting, nightmarish quality (and the individuals a ghoulish ghost-like presence) but also a sad realistic beauty – probably like the way people see the world right before they die. Most of the film benefits from some simply tremendous actors doing an utterly perfect job of being human failures (like most of us). Most of the film is tremendously engrossing and sad and, somehow, becomes sadly engrossing. It’s an amazing tapestry of emotion and one that’s hard to walk away from without some modicum of feeling.

Finally, if that’s possible, Robert Wise’s film received a most remarkable score from jazz pianist and composer John Lewis (1920-2001), the formative head of the great Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). Lewis, who was part of some of jazz’s most remarkable formations – including those of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and as pianist/arranger of the historic The Birth Of The Cool sessions – had previously scored Roger Vadim’s No Sun In Venice (aka Sait-on Jamais, 1957) and would later score A Milanese Story (aka Una Storia Milanese, 1962) – two too little-seen and too little-known films, not unlike this one. Lewis’s “Django” (1954) had also become a jazz standard by this point too. But this score is something special and exceedingly impressive even if it resulted in a most unremarkable jazz standard, “Skating in Central Park.”

It's been said that this is the best of the heist-gone-wrong films and the great Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73), master of the heist-gone-wrong genre, has expressed - and shown - admiration for this film in his films Le deuxième souffle (1966) and Le cercle rouge (1970).

There were two LPs released on the United Artists label in 1959 to commemorate Odds Against Tomorrow – the original soundtrack (United Artists UAL 4061) and a Modern Jazz Quartet “music from” the soundtrack (United Artists UAL 4063). Both have since been issued on CD – but, unfortunately for me, are now out of print and highly collectable. Both are worthwhile and essential as some of the best jazz music that has been put to filmic images.

Odds Against Tomorrow – An Original Sound Track Recording Composed and Conducted by John Lewis (United Artists, 1959): This 19-track album, recorded in July 1959, features all the cues composer John Lewis wrote for this nearly Nouvelle Vague-esque 1959 film noir, Odds Against Tomorrow. The jazz-oriented score features four trumpets, four French horns (including Gunther Schuller, who did the notes to the MJQ LP), two trombones, a tuba, a harp, a flute, two celli, a tympanist, a percussionist, the guitar of Jim Hall, the piano of Bill Evans (!!!), and the members of the MJQ sans John Lewis. It’s a perfect assembly, gorgeously scored by Lewis. It’s menacing and sensitive all at once; a perfect combination of moods for the film and a perfectly enjoyable sense of jazz to appreciate outside of the film. Missing here are the two pieces Harry Belafonte performs in the film – both which indicate that Belafonte is doing his own work on the vibes (of course, the tremendous vocals are his own). The best known piece, “Skating in Central Park,” is blasted over a hi-fi while people are actually skating in Central Park. But it is presented here are as weird piece of third-stream music (Lewis later adapted this into an MJQ piece which caught favor in the quartet's performances – one of which I am pleased to say I caught in the mid eighties). The highlights on this album are bountiful, but include “Skating in Central Park” (which Odds pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall featured on their 1962 album Undercurrent), “No Happiness For Slater,” an excellent feature for guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans, “Main Theme: Odds Against Tomorrow,” featuring the great MJQ vibist Milt Jackson (who also has a typically beautiful solo feature in “Games”), the Bill Evans trio feature “Social Call” and “Distractions” (featuring Jim Hall). It’s a terrific score – and for those who like or love Gary McFarland, it’s easy to hear where the young vibist picked up many of his musical ideas (John Lewis was one of McFarland’s early sponsors and there is no doubt that the young vibist knew this score and applied what he’d learned to his later scores for Eye of the Devil and Who Killed Mary What’s ‘er Name).

Music From Odds Against Tomorrow – Played By The Modern Jazz Quartet (United Artists, 1959): This is the jazz variation of pianist John Lewis’s soundtrack to the film Odds Against Tomorrow, recorded in October 1959 (and also issued as the MJQ’s album Patterns). This is probably of more interest to jazz fans than the original and probably superior soundtrack album. Both are exceptional performances. It is here where one can hear the first incarnation of the famed MJQ standard “Skating in Central Park” – which the group performed throughout its career and caught on record many a time after this. Five additional titles from the score can also be heard here – “No Happiness For Slater,” “A Social Call,” “Cue-9” (a source cue from the original soundtrack that’s not on the soundtrack album, when Wayne Rogers, in his film debut, first appears, about 40 minutes into the film), “A Cold Wind Is Blowing” and “Odds Against Tomorrow.” Vibraphonist Milt Jackson makes this album much more swinging and exciting than the soundtrack, which is much more like an MJQ album than the John Lewis soundtrack. Even Lewis the pianist is much more involved here (Bill Evans played the sporadic piano on the soundtrack), which gives the “jazz version” of the soundtrack – something very much in vogue during the period – a certain notability. On its own, it is nice. But it is not nearly as substantial as it could have been, which is probably why no one holds this MJQ album in the high regard it probably deserves. The cover, too, depicting Henry Belafonte’s Johnny reflecting on his crime shortly before he commits it (and the great typography), is worth it too, if the music, unfortunately, isn’t.

Wish I could have both of these albums on CD. They’re both that good. And they’re both worth having. The LPs of each are now probably just as hard to find as the CDs. But it would be great if EMI, Blue Note, or whoever owns this material now would consent to issue both of these above-average albums on one complete CD. It would make for some very compelling listening.


Todd Mason said...

You definitely seem to be of two minds about the two albums...but I must admit I've had my copy of the LP PATTERNS for about fifteen years or so before I first saw ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW the film (and I still mean to read the novel, by Philadelphia's own William McGivern, who did considerable pulp writing for Ziff-Davis magazines and novels along with his television work), I suspect I'll prefer the MJQ renditions over the soundtrack album...if I ever find the OST for less than the cost of a major appliance. And for a 1991 cd, too. Goodness. And the DVD very reasonably priced, new. Meanwhile, the MJQ album is now out as a CDR(!) from Amazon for an arm and leg, but a shorter cut than the profiteers are asking for the OST.

Todd Mason said...

or, even, So I suspect I'll prefer the MJQ album...

And OAT still has the most OTT ending of any crime drama I can recall. Yow.

Douglas Payne said...

Hi Todd..

You're right. I am definitely of two minds about both albums. Still love them both, though. I, myself, slightly prefer the original soundtrack over the MJQ version. The soundtrack also has the always fab Milt Jackson but also features Jim Hall and Bill Evans, who was always a more interesting pianist than John Lewis. Also, I love the way you said that the finale of OAT is OTT...totally right! Thanks, Doug