From the dizzying opening credits to the cataclysmic ending, Odds Against Tomorrow never skips a beat. A great character study, crime drama, social statement, and film noir; it’s studded with brilliant performances. Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley are at their best. The cinematography flickers between the gritty cramped New York City apartments and the quiet riverbank scenes in upstate New York.
Among the three main characters, Ryan’s Earle is the most overtly troubled. He never relaxes. And, except for some artificial snuggling with Lorry (Shelley Winters), he’s always angry, always uncomfortable. If there’s no actual tension, he manufactures it; his racism gives him a reason to mistrust and denigrate Belafonte’s Johnny.
But Johnny makes his own mess too. Unlike Earle and Dave (Begley) he actually has a legitimate career of sorts. He appears to be middle class, with fancy clothes and a cool car, but his gambling compulsion has dragged him down. He’s lost his wife and custody of his child, spending his time warding off the gangster Bacco (Will Kuluva). He can’t even enjoy a day at an amusement part with his daughter without the gangsters’ intrusion.
Begley’s Dave, on the other hand, has pretty much resigned himself to the criminal life. He maintains an outward joviality, but he has to gamble as well–coming up with the bank heist to make ends meet for all three of them. The heist itself is just part of the gamble; the tension between Johnny and Earle makes it an impossible long-shot.
One of the quieter interludes tells us what we need to know about these guys. The day of the heist, after they meet down at the river, they separate; we see each of them alone for a bit. Johnny is transfixed by a doll floating amongst other debris; like the blighted relationship with his daughter, it’s seen better days. Earle’s way of dealing with innocence–the rabbit appearing out of nowhere–is to kill it. It’s as though existence only has meaning if he destroys something. He wrecks the world he can’t fit into.
The heist sequence returns us to a claustrophobic, nightime world, playing out in the literal confines of a cold, damp alley adjacent to the targeted bank. It looked like it was going to come off. Then Earle sabotages the plan by not giving Johnny the car keys. Maybe Earle is self-destructive enough to deliberately throw a wrench into the well-conceived plan. The simple explanation is that he doesn’t trust Johnny. His hatred wins out over his fear of being caught or killed.
His character has become so irrational that it seems any sort of escape would lead to a showdown with Johnny. As it is, he makes it easier for the police to find them by trying to shoot it out with Johnny. The fuel tank explosion, a device used effectively in earlier noir films, is fittingly spectacular. But despite the physical violence of the explosion and fire, it’s devoid of tragic meaning; the firemen dealing with the corpses “can’t tell the difference” between Johnny and Earle. They’re merely dead criminals.
There’s no loose ends or wasted scenes in Odds Against Tomorrow. With a few domestic scenes patched into the overall pattern of hopelessness, there’s just enough motivation to sustain these guys. They speak and act with desperation, against a hip jazz background that amplifies every jarring step they take.
This is a movie you could watch many times, and come away with something new each time. Highly recommended. 10/10.