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Ranking:
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Release Date: January 9th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1959

Odds Against Tomorrow

Overview -

A taut heist film that percolates with racial tension and simmers with sexuality, Odds Against Tomorrow still packs a potent punch more than six decades after its premiere. Director Robert Wise's character-driven thriller features top-notch performances from an A-list cast, and though KLSC's transfer would benefit immensely from a full-blown restoration, the crisp underlying image immerses us in the action. Robust audio and a nice supplemental package also enhance this solid - but sadly, not stunning - Blu-ray presentation of an underrated classic. Recommended.

Nerve-snapping suspense, gritty style and an unsparing look at racial tension unite this “thunderbolt of a film” (Los Angeles Examiner) from legendary director Robert Wise (The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and screenwriters Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil) and Nelson Gidding (The Haunting), based on the novel by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat). Acting greats Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley and Gloria Grahame deliver superb performances in this taut and absorbing crime melodrama, often cited as the first film noir to feature a black protagonist. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars, ready for the taking. It’s too much to resist for bigoted ex-con Earl Slater (Ryan). He agrees to take part in a bank robbery with former cop Burke (Begley)—but hesitates when he finds out that one of his partners (Belafonte) is black. As tensions mount and the men get closer to their biggest score ever, Earl’s hatred erupts, resulting in violent consequences for the heist…and their lives.

 

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959)
• NEW Audio Commentary by Author/Film Historian Alan K. Rode
Theatrical Trailer
• Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase
• Optional English Subtitles
B&W 96 Minutes 1.85:1 Not Rated

OVERALL:
Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray Disc
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Length:
96
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.85:1
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
January 9th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Odds Against Tomorrow is a great heist film, but it's so much more than that. Director Robert Wise's gritty thriller not only chronicles the plot to rob an Upstate New York bank, it more importantly examines the racial tensions that tear the trio of small-time conspirators apart. Though suspenseful moments abound and plenty of action propels the narrative, it's the mix of blatant and underlying bigotry coursing through the film that makes the strongest statement and resonates long after the carnage concludes.

"One-time job. One roll of the dice and then we're through forever." That's how embittered ex-NYPD cop David Burke (Ed Begley) pitches the robbery of a bank in a sleepy Hudson Valley town to Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a washed-up ex-con who served time for manslaughter and lives off the hard-earned money of his devoted, indulgent girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters). When the bigoted Slater finds out the third member of the triumvirate is black, he initially declines Burke's offer, but his masculine pride and craving for cash ultimately lead him into the fold.

Musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), whose gambling addiction destroyed his marriage, hesitates to cross the crime line, but he's deep in debt to a mobster and needs the potential $50K payout to settle up and provide for his young daughter. Johnny hates how his ex-wife panders to white society to get ahead and has little patience for Slater's demeaning remarks and arrogant attitude. Slater's unwillingness to treat Johnny as an equal and trust him to play his assigned role in the heist causes plenty of friction and threatens the operation's success.

Most heist movies concentrate so heavily on the crime's blueprint and execution, the characters are little more than cardboard cutouts. Not so in Odds Against Tomorrow. The screenplay by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding, adapted from a novel by William P. McGivern (who several years earlier supplied the story for another stellar film noir, The Big Heat), features an array of colorful, dimensional, quirky, and repugnant losers who spice up the tale and lend it gravitas. All of them are searching for a score of some sort, but they're all their own worst enemies.

Polonsky, whose burgeoning writing and directing careers ground to a screeching halt after he was blacklisted following a skirmish with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, was forced to use John O. Killens as a front, but the Writer's Guild of America restored his credit in 1996, three years before his death. He and Gidding, who earned an Oscar nod the previous year for I Want to Live! (also directed by Wise), craft a crackling script that forcefully plays its racial cards and provides Ryan and Gloria Grahame (as Slater's promiscuous neighbor) a steamy scene with wonderfully creepy subtext. The explosive ending may recall White Heat's iconic "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" coda a decade earlier, but Odds Against Tomorrow's ironic, throwaway last line beautifully caps off the racial theme far better than preachy pleas for tolerance and unity in other movies.

Wise is best known for his two Oscar-winning musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), but prior to those blockbuster Broadway adaptations he directed a host of tough noirs and searing dramas, and Odds Against Tomorrow offers us the best of both of those worlds. A potent urban vibe permeates the proceedings, thanks to extensive location shooting in New York City, and Wise masterfully juxtaposes the Big Apple's concrete jungle against the eerie tranquility of the small town that's the target of the robbery.

Belafonte co-produced the film (although he did not receive screen credit) and made sure Johnny was depicted as a strong, proud black man, not someone who kowtows to white bullies. (In McGivern's novel, Johnny is much more passive.) The character is far more evolved than the man Belafonte played in his previous film, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and his slick, confident performance in Odds Against Tomorrow went a long way toward advancing future portrayals of black men on screen. Sidney Poitier often gets all the attention as a groundbreaking black actor, but Belafonte's contributions should not be ignored or minimized.

Ryan also deserves considerable credit for so fully inhabiting the despicable Slater. Playing a bigot wasn't a new challenge for Ryan, who memorably portrayed an out-of-control anti-Semite in 1947's Crossfire, but Slater doesn't even try to hide his soul-sucking prejudice. Though Slater's tenets couldn't be further removed from Ryan's own beliefs (he was one of Hollywood's staunchest liberals), the actor nevertheless crafts a ferocious, chilling performance that's utterly believable.

Begley is one of the best character actors out there and without chewing the scenery or showboating he makes sure Burke doesn't get overshadowed by his strapping fellow thieves. Winters and Grahame don't have a lot to do, but they shine nonetheless. Winters supplies some much-needed tenderness as the world-weary Lorry who just can't quit her not-so-lovable loser boyfriend, a role that contrasts sharply with her other 1959 film appearance, the middle-aged, temperamental Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank, which won her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Grahame, as a bored, sex-starved housewife desperate for a tumble with bad-boy Slater, only has a couple of scenes, but she makes the most of every screen moment. Nobody can play neurotic, wanton women like Grahame and she really sinks her teeth into this juicy, wildly disturbing part. Eagle eyes will also spot a young Cicely Tyson in just her second movie as a nightclub bartender and future M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers in his very impressive film debut as a cocky soldier who gets more than he bargains for during a confrontation with Slater in a New York City pub.

Perhaps because of its grim nature and controversial themes, Odds Against Tomorrow was not a box office success at the time of its initial release, but its stature has grown over the decades. In the bleak world of film noir, it stands as a blistering specimen and one of the last entries in a genre that would fall out of favor with filmgoers in the 1960s. Odds are good that anyone who checks out Odds Against Tomorrow today will keep it on the shelf for many, many tomorrows to come.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Odds Against Tomorrow arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

Odds Against Tomorrow cries out for a meticulous restoration, but unfortunately this isn't it. Though the underlying image on KLSC's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is often breathtakingly crisp, too much distracting print damage diminishes its impact. There's no mention of remastering on the packaging, and because I don't own the 2018 Blu-ray from Olive Films, I can't say for sure whether this is the same transfer. The annoying damage, which includes specks, blotches, scratches, and white vertical lines, is often heaviest during reel changes, but is fairly consistent throughout. Grain levels fluctuate and some solid backgrounds exhibit noise, but the texture complements the story's gritty, urban nature and ensures a film-like appearance that faithfully honors Joseph Brun's striking cinematography.

Rich blacks anchor the image, the whites resist blooming, and superior shadow delineation heightens detail levels during nocturnal scenes. Some sequences appear overly bright, but that's a byproduct of a photographic technique Wise employed during filming. The picture possesses a palpable degree of depth and many of the close-ups are quite arresting as they highlight the creases in Ryan's weathered face, Begley's bushy eyebrows, and Belafonte's silky complexion. Though elements of this transfer are excellent, the veneer of damage dampens my enthusiasm for this particular rendering.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies potent sound that increases the story's impact. Sonic accents like gunfire and explosions are crisp, while atmospherics like howling wind and city street noise nicely shade the action. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of John Lewis' jazzy music score that includes a pounding xylophone solo without any distortion, all the dialogue is clear, well prioritized, and easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. The video may have issues, but this audio track serves this thrilling film well.

Special Features

Ranking:

Several interesting supplements are included on the disc.

  • Audio Commentary - Author, film historian, and noir expert Alan K. Rode provides his usual exceptional commentary, supplying a captivating mix of insight, history, trivia, and wit. Rode cites the differences between the novel and film (especially with regard to Belafonte's character), supplies in-depth bios of Belafonte and Ryan, examines censorship issues, and touches upon the mutual affection and respect between Belafonte and Ryan despite the adversarial nature of their characters. He also points out the appearance of Robert Earl Jones (the father of James Earl Jones), analyzes the various characters, reveals Grahame's obsession with the appearance of her upper lip, and chronicles the blacklisting of writer Abraham Polonsky. If you're a fan of Odds Against Tomorrow, this track is definitely worth a listen.

  • Post Screening Q&A with Harry Belafonte (SD, 49 minutes) - Recorded after a 2009 screening of Odds Against Tomorrow in Chicago, this Q&A session hosted by author and historian Foster Hirsch allows Belafonte the chance to talk about the movie's themes, discuss the social climate at the time the picture was made, express his respect for Robert Wise and Abraham Polonsky and affection for Robert Ryan, and examine every aspect of production. The 82-year-old Belafonte, who passed away last year at age 96, obviously enjoys chatting about a film he reveres and we're lucky his reflections were preserved and included here.

  • Post Screening Q&A with Kim Hamilton (SD, 20 minutes) - Divided into two parts, this 2007 discussion with actress Kim Hamilton, who plays Belafonte's ex-wife in the film, is conducted by author and historian Alan K. Rode and covers a variety of topics, including how Hamilton got her role, her impressions of her fellow cast members, her enduring friendship with Belafonte, some of her other notable roles, and her marriage to Hogan's Heroes actor Werner Klemperer.

  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's preview is merely a conglomeration of snippets without any allusion to the movie's title, stars, or plot.

Final Thoughts

Odds Against Tomorrow is much more than a garden variety heist flick. The racial undertones of this thrilling film raise the story's stakes and still resonate today, while the captivating performances of Belafonte, Ryan, Winters, Begley, and Grahame keep us riveted throughout. Though prevalent print damage detracts from an otherwise solid transfer, high-quality audio and a nice supplemental package enhance the appeal of this noteworthy release. Recommended.