“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, & Ed Begley

Dave Burke (veteran character actor Ed Begley) is looking to hire two men to assist him in a bank raid: Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a white/middle-aged ex-con, and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte- also co-producer), a young/Black singer w/ a gambling problem. Ingram (who likes the finer things in life) is recently divorced from his schoolteacher wife, Ruth (Kim Hamilton), w/ whom he shares a young daughter. Burke arranges for Ingram’s creditors to put pressure on him. Slater (who has a quick temper) feels humiliated by his failure to provide for his devoted wife, Lorry (Shelley Winters), who works two jobs. The two men, though reluctant at first, eventually accept to do the crime. Slater loathes and despises Blacks; tensions in the gang quickly mount.

[after Slater insults Ingram]

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?

Belafonte chose Abraham Polonsky (writer/director of Force of Evil) to write the script. As a blacklisted writer, Polonsky used the name of John O. Killens (a Black novelist/friend of Belafonte). In 1997, the WGA restored Polonsky’s credit. The director is Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sound of Music); he used infra-red film in some scenes (to create a distorted feel).

This is the first film noir with a Black protagonist! The bartender at the jazz club is a young Cicely Tyson (her second film appearance); she passed away in early 2021. Noir icon Gloria Grahame makes a brief (yet important) appearance. The movie was praised highly by James Ellroy and influenced the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (a French director). The volatile chemistry between the three men is at the center of the movie. I liked the character development, on locations shots of NYC (incl. Central Park), and the slightly uneasy atmosphere. Jazz and Calypso music are played at the smoky club where Ingram performs.

[1] Good low budget heist film. Ryan’s character is one of the ugliest portrayals of a white racist in film. Belafonte’s character is one of the most multi-faceted and complex potrayals of an African American up until that time, and the performance doesn’t date at all. Wise keeps the pacing taut and the suspense high.

[2] Personally I found Belefonte’s contribution the most searing. He captures the role of the divorced father to a tee. The scene where he is awakened by his ex-wife after sleeping (ever so slightly) with is daughter is masterful. You can sense the longing in his heart for the nuclear family that once was.

[3] Wise wants to communicate a whole context, he wants to detail his characters to a fault. How many directors would dare that today? Robert Ryan’s part is very complex. First he seems friendly, but further acquaintance shows a lack of self-confidence (he’s getting old, he’s a washout, he wants to go for broke). And he is a racist. Rarely, this obnoxious feeling has been depicted with such wit.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMBD

4 thoughts on ““Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, & Ed Begley

  1. Belafonte’s generation of the African diaspora is so interesting creatively and politically. I did not know he had done this.

    Like

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