Death in a Northern Town – An Irishman’s Diary about the Belfast film classic, ‘Odd Man Out’
Despite James Mason’s heroic efforts to hide his posh English tones under a brogue, the results ended up somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea, but well south of the Isle of Man
Most critics consider The Third Man to be Carol Reed’s finest film, and it is certainly one of cinema’s all-time greats. But there’s a school of thought that holds an earlier thriller of his, set in Ireland, to be at least its equal.
For one fellow director, Roman Polanski, that and not the tale from post-war Vienna was Reed’s true masterpiece
Released 70 years ago this month, Odd Man Out portrays the final hours of a wounded IRA man (James Mason), limping through the wintry night-time streets of Belfast after a robbery gone wrong.
Not that Belfast, or indeed the IRA, is ever mentioned.
The scene is “a city in Northern Ireland” and Mason and his friends refer only to “the organisation”. Also, in an attempt to sidestep politics from the start, the story begins with a caption warning that it is “not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people”.
In a way that could hardly have been imagined in 1947, the plot now even sits comfortably with political correctness, Belfast Agreement-style.
Thus, before the robbery, Mason voices doubts about the justification for further violence and wonders aloud if “parliament” is not the better way to go.
Even so, the Stormont government was profoundly suspicious about Odd Man Out.
And from a unionist perspective, the paranoia may have been justified. Not the least remarkable thing about the film is the sympathy, even respect, with which it treats “the organisation”.
Mason’s Johnny McQueen is shot (in every sense) beautifully, while the doomed romance of his relationship with Kathleen Sullivan is straight out of Romeo and Juliet.
Still, politics aside, Belfast is shot beautifully too. Interior scenes, including the Crown Bar, were recreated on a set in England, and even some of the exteriors were in London. But where required, the streets of Belfast took to film noir (and film blanc when the snow starts falling) like naturals.
If the city itself was a star of the production, however, this could not be said for the local acting fraternity. Reed instead scoured Dublin, especially the Abbey Theatre, for the supporting cast. As a result, a major eccentricity of the film – for local viewers if no-one else – is the severe shortage of Belfast accents anywhere.
Despite Mason’s heroic efforts to hide his posh English tones under a brogue, the results ended up somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea, but well south of the Isle of Man.
Elsewhere, among the main protagonists, only a young Cyril Cusack and FJ McCormack (in a role that foreshadowed another of Reed’s immortal characters, Fagin) attempted the full Belfast.
The film’s truest accents are those of the street urchins who hero-worship McQueen. This was no coincidence. They were the genuine article – orphans of the wartime blitz, borrowed from West Belfast’s St Patrick’s Boys Home.
Reed was in many ways very insistent on authenticity.
Actor Joseph Tomelty, although himself a Northerner, spoke afterwards of his embarrassment at attending a screen test and being unable to answer the director’s questions about such matters as which make of car the Belfast police drove, or what a prison warder’s uniform looked like.
But even the film’s extras were imported from south of the Border. A scene on a crowded Falls Road tram, for example, sounds more like an opening night party at the Abbey.
Among the supposed Belfast commuters was Wilfred Brambell, later famous as the sitcom character Steptoe, and the English-born doyenne of Dublin’s acting scene, Madame Kirkwood-Hackett.
For aficionados of the North’s “narcissism of small differences”, Odd Man Out also includes a classic gaffe. Even more than the accents, its religious nuances would have been lost on the vast majority of Reed’s intended audience. But it was not lost on this newspaper’s Irishman’s Diarist, “Nichevo”, (a pseudonym used by the then editor, Bertie Smyllie) who, as he explained, was a hardened veteran of “Presbyterian Sunday School”.
In a climactic scene, therefore, when Johnny McQueen quotes something his priest had taught him many years before, Nichevo did not need to be told it was from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter XIII (“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels”).
And it might have been stretching credibility, anyway, for a Belfast IRA man to be quoting scripture in his dying moments. But even if that did ever happen, to paraphrase our correspondent, he would surely not have used the King James version.