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Henry Judd

New Film of the Irish Revolt

(2 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 22, 2 June 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Episodes and phases in the Irish nationalist struggle for independence from England have provided one of the most fruitful sources of cultural expressions – in the form of art, plays, novels, poetry, movies, etc. – in our time. This source has largely dried up now, with the decline and perversion of the Irish movement, but this new British film, Odd Man Out, while treating the subject from a new approach, in keeping with the dampened spirit of a movement whose “heroic days” are increasingly a memory, still draws its art and inspiration from the original source. If the now classic film, Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, together with such plays as Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and some others of his works, represented a much earlier phase of the movement, Odd Man Out is a more contemporary expression, both politically and in its moral expression, of the same movement today – exhausted, more isolated and shaky in its inner convictions.

Odd Man Out takes place in an unnamed city of Northern Ireland, evidently Belfast. Its nationalist heroes – and almost without exception they are of mediocre caliber as compared with, let us say, the proud fighters in The Informer – belong to “the organization.” It is a nameless organization, but apparently is the Irish Republican Army, or rather its terrorist remnants, engaged in the struggle to win the seven “lost” counties of Northern Ireland back to unity with Eire. The ideas, hopes and beliefs of “the organization” and its members remain anonymous throughout the film. If this picture is worth seeing – and our opinion is that it most definitely is – it is not because of its content or the light it casts upon the long and complex struggle of Irish nationalism.

Its merits and its absorbing interests lie elsewhere. Not only is the technique, the photography and montage superb (a sort of grand synthesis of the direct naturalism of the Irish Abbey Theater, the special lighting techniques developed particularly by the French, and the sharpness of imagery known in the work of Hollywood’s John Ford), but the atmosphere and feeling in the film are revealing in their projection of the moods of Irish nationalism in the moment of its defeat, decline and disintegration.

Johnny MacQueen, the leader of the group in his North Ireland city, is the tragic center of the story. MacQueen is of no particular importance; he is a leader without real followers. His group rapidly fades away, through blundering, lack of conviction, triviality of understanding. Johnny is a shadow; the story is concerned with the long travail of his dying. A burst of a tommy-gun brings him to his inevitable end. Johnny himself has no conviction; he doubts his leader role. His attempt at bank robbery is a bungle. In hunting him down, the police are attempting only to formally close the case of a vanquished opponent. Johnny knows this. There is no defiance in him – only a somewhat abject apology for having caused “trouble,” a deep guilt for having murdered a man in the name of “the organization.” “I am leaving and I will not bother you again,” he tells the sympathetic women who have helped him, but must turn him out.

Johhny, we feel, is going through the motions of acting out an inevitable destiny. In this sense, he is neither a dramatic nor tragic figure but only a victim. He is a man pushed about, whose end is objectively fixed by circumstances but in no way influenced by himself. This is the part played by James Mason, who, incidentally, definitely proves he knows more about acting than the technique of scowling and striking women.

More important, of course, are the people against whom Johnny brushes and glances off from as he staggers, a dying man, about the streets of the city. Pity and treachery, compassion and hypocrisy, love and fear – the subtle ambivalence of human emotions in contact with the hunted, the outcast who already belongs to death – these are revealed in an absolutely brilliant artistry. Our poor Hollywood, to whom “characters” are wooden figures ordered from an available stockpile, could never develop this conception of using “characters” to develop and create emotional characterizations. The half-mad artist who wants only to paint the dying man’s eyes; the weakling associates of Johnny; the Irish loafer, a shrew-like bum, torn between his desire to sell Johnny (“a man must live”) and his real understanding of what Johnny represents (a part enacted by the late F.J. MacCarthy of the Abbey Theater); the brooding sweetheart of Johnny, etc. With the possible exception of the artist, none have that awkward air of the contrived so familiar to our American pictures.

Seeking to regain contact with “the organization,” seeking a place of refuge, Johnny goes about the streets, half-delirious, half-set to welcome his finish. All who come across him confront the obvious problem of what to do. Not a one betrays him outright, yet not a one feels guiltless. All are haunted by this man, even though he denies himself and what he has done. These people know their “cause” has failed and the manhunt for Johnny reminds them of how much even its memory has dimmed in their consciousness. Their limited help to Johnny is a gesture of personal compassion, nothing more.

The makers of this film wished to record the hopelessness and last gasps of a defeated movement. They must be credited with attempting to make this point not in a crudely moralizing, propagandistic manner. Only the inevitable gray-haired priest preaches to us. But the essence of the film is that the men arid women of Johnny’s city can no longer be aroused by his actions, but only through the pity and sympathy his plight creates by itself. At an early point even Johnny suggests they should have gone to Parliament instead of this way.

Odd Man Out, in at least one respect, consciously or not, defeats its own aim. With profound simplicity – an effect never achieved by Hollywood – it reveals the instinctive reaction of the city’s nameless people, the young and the very old particularly, not only in defense of Johnny, but against the police. When the decoy, sent by “the organization” to draw off the police from Johnny’s trail, leads them a chase down a series of slum alleys, late at night, the camera awakens the inhabitants from their sleep. Up go their window shades as they watch the hunt. They know what is transpiring, and each one, we feel; by the expression on his face, would do everything possible to help the agent of “the organization.” Again, there are the slum children, as natural a group of young toughies as ever was seen in the movies. At one point, they know where Johnny is hiding out. How shrewdly they size up the agent of “the organization” who is attempting the find him. It is almost as if they know from birth and their life in the slums whose side they are on and that Johnny must be protected by them.

Odd Man Out is a brilliantly executed film, a representation of the Irish nationalist struggle at a difficult and confused stage in its long history. The mixed-up emotions of those who produced it are counterbalanced by their awkward honesty.

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