Monday, July 20, 2009

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959) - Robert Wise

Last week was all about Robert Mitchum. This weekend was all Robert Ryan.

Robert Ryan made a career out of playing morally shady men, those who've taken the easy way out somewhere along the line and are deeply conflicted about it. My first intro to Ryan was in The Wild Bunch where his character Deke Thornton was charged with the unenviable task of tracking and apprehending the Bunch, and especially his old pal William Holden. Even though Ryan is on the "right side of the law" he somehow feels like the enemy to the audience, given how much we grow to like the Bunch. And he plays Thornton much the same way...a man who doesn't like himself so much for taking on the task.

In this race-based robbery pic sharply directed by Robert Wise and produced by Harry Belafonte, Ryan stretches character sympathy to the limits playing an unrepentant racist (the first words out of his mouth in the film are to pull aside a small black girl on the street and call her a "little pick-a-ninny"). On top of that he's an out of work lout playing live-in lover to working girl Shelly Winters.

When fixer Ed Begley Sr. offers a job to hit a bank upstate that will set him up for the rest of his life and finally get him out from under Winters, Ryan at first jumps at the chance...until he realizes he has to work with a black man (Belafonte). The only way for the plan to work is for Belafonte to impersonate a black delivery guy who brings take-out to the bank every night. Race is the key on which the success of the score relies, and Ryan can't bring himself to trust a third partner of a different color. Belafonte's not too keen on Ryan either and has some race issues himself, especially now that his ex-wife is trying to "climb the ladder with the ofays," getting their daughter into white schools and hanging out with the PTA. But Belafonte's hustler has a taste for the good life and is deeply in debt. So they both reluctantly accept.

The movie builds slowly to the night of the robbery, piling on the details of both men's f'ed up personal lives, the racial tensions slowly bubbling to a thick boil in the pot. The ending is, literally, an explosive one and the fabulous last lines nail blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky's point dead to the wall without being preachy, just potent.

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