Released by United Artist in 1959, Odds Against Tomorrow is the compelling story of three diverse men and a “One roll of the dice and we’re through forever” heist that brings these unlikely bedfellows together.
This is the third film in Robert Ryan’s bigotry trilogy, the others being Crossfire and Bad Day at Blackrock. Odds Against Tomorrow, with screenplay by Abraham Polonsky pits Earl (Ryan), Dave (Ed Begley) and Johnny (Harry Belafonte) in a plan to regain the lives they all knew in better times. Each of them is burning in a private hell. This is brought on by them selves and, of course, the road to salvation is paved in money, lots of money by means of a “can’t miss” bank job orchestrated by Dave.
The film opens with a scene of water running down a gutter, which in view of the characters we encounter is quite fitting.
Dave’s the character we know the least about and for all intents, primarily serves as the buffer between Earl and Johnny. He’s a former 30 year tough cop whose career ended with him spending a year in the pen for contempt. Once on top of the world, he’s now living in a fleabag hotel, its wall adored with pictures and plaques of bygone days when he knew everyone and rubbed elbows with them all. His sole companion these days is his faithful German Shepard. One easy score and he’s back on easy street for the rest of his life; so he thinks.
Earl’s a two-time loser whose spent time in the joint for assault with a deadly weapon and manslaughter. He’s a veteran of WWII with a red neck and mean streak to match it. He’s lost in a world in which he has no place and knows it. With no visible means of support he’s currently shacked up with his clingy, motherly gal Lorry (Shelley Winters) and reduced to running errands for her and baby sitting the kid upstairs. This is no life for a man of action. In one encounter when he’s lamenting his lot in life to Lorry and his dependence upon her as her boy-toy, she responds “There’s only one thing I care about.” Going for the kill he replies “I know, but what happens when I get old.” She one ups him as she storms out of the room with “You already are old!”
The third player, Johnny is cool as the other side of the pillow. He sports around in an Austin Healy 3000, dresses to the nines, and sings in a jazz club. Seemly having it all, he’s in the clutches of small time gambling kingpin Bacco (Will Kuluva) to the tune of “Seven five oh oh.” If the money issue weren’t bad enough, his addiction to gambling has cost Jonny his wife and daughter too. Divorced and only spending time with his young daughter on week-ends he’s now looking back to how it used to be and if he could only get out from under the debt to Bacco, maybe he could reclaim his family.
If you subscribe to the idea that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," then I hold director, Robert Wise guilty on three counts, the first two while Johnny spends times with his daughter in Central Park. One cannot watch the carousal scene without immediately having the image of Strangers on a Train flash in your mind. This is followed up moments later when, while holding his daughter’s balloon, Johnny steps into a phone booth. While there appears to be ample room within the booth for him and the balloon, it flutters on a string outside. The image is of Johnny placing himself in a spot too tight to allow the presence of his daughter or wife until he’s able to extricate himself from Bacco. While in the booth, a pair of teenagers stroll by duplicating the act of the maniacal Bruno, again from Strangers on a Train, by popping the balloon with a cigarette. The look of despair on Johnny’s face as he holds the remains of the balloon convey his acceptance that his former life is forever gone unless he can make the score Dave’s laid out.
Such are the predicaments the three find themselves in and after only having a good deal of soul searching by both Earl and Johnny does the plan begin to jell. The refusal to work with a black man by Earl and Johnny’s desire to stay clear of any enterprise outside of the law are finally put to rest, at least for the moment. While Johnny can accept the realities of the situation he finds himself in, especially after Bacco threatens to do harm to his wife and daughter, Earl’s hatred continues to boil just below the surface. Dave is the constant voice of reason and he bellows at Earl in one meeting.
“I don’t want to hear what your grand pappy thought on the farm down in Oklahoma!”
Poor Dave, thinking as if words alone could undo the ignorance and intolerance of one so twisted in his ideas as Earl. Earl who has double boiler makers for lunch and “two times” his gal by proving his manhood with the mother of the kid upstairs, Helen (Gloria Grahame).
While on the subject of “twos”, there seems to a reoccurring theme of things in tandem through out the film. Earl’s a two-time loser, the two seater car, dual carbs on the getaway car (’52 Chevy), both Earl and Johnny have two females in their lives, two thugs trail Johnny at the park, and two musical numbers. Maybe it’s the whole duality of man, love vs hate, black vs white or maybe I’m just seeing double.
Speaking of musical numbers, any one’s whose read one of my NOTW pieces knows of my disdain for the obligatory song routines that surface in these films. That noted, Johnny’s number at the club is a breath of fresh air. In that it is Harry Belafonte and not Liz Scott’s baritone or Betty Bacall being dubbed by Andy Williams, you’re getting the real deal and it is a welcome respite prior to the mayhem that will follow. Mayhem not only in the terms of the crime to be committed but in the interaction between Earl and Johnny and the venom that flows non-stop as when Earl says “You’re just another black spot on Main Street,” to which Johnny replies “Some day I’m going to snap off your poisoned head.”
That day will not be long in coming as the inevitable, heist goes bad, comes to pass and we’re left with the final showdown between the two antagonists, one black, one white. When the confrontation comes, it’s right out of White Heat, (the third instance of "Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery"). The only thing missing following an explosion of atomic proportions is the tag line “Made it ma, Top of the World!”
The tag line here, while more subtle is just as memorable as a fireman and ambulance driver having the following exchange while viewing the charred remains of Earl and Johnny:
“Well these are the two that did it.”
“Which is which?”
“Take your pick.”