This essay is a part of a series meant to draw attention to hidden gems, underrated classics, and great work in black cinematic history in honor of Black History Month.
The definitive legacy most associated with film noir’s classical period — which stretches from the 1940s into the late 1950s — is that of sharply dressed white men who speak in a seductively stylized cadence. They seek to beat the urban landscape they navigate into a paradise of their own making, typically only finding damnation instead.
I’ve always deeply loved film noir. Its stylistic panache, actorly finesse, and often radical approach to the dark corners of human nature acts as both a warning and a method of seduction. But despite regularly casting the American Dream as an alluring but fatal lie, noir has always had a curious reckoning with race. As social historian and professor Eric Lott notes about the genre’s classical period in his astounding work Black Mirror, “At a moment when bold new forms of black, Chicano, and Asian activism and visibility confronted resurgent white […] vigilantism, film noir’s relentless […] moral focus on the rotten souls of white folk constantly though obliquely invoked the racial dimension of this figural play of light against dark.” In other words, the parameters of race — and lived experiences of black identity, specifically — fester in the margins. There are allusions to how race shapes the lives of noir characters, but it is rarely confronted in the same unflinching way the genre confronts the dynamics of gender and desire.
Often, this is demonstrated through the othering of white characters, depicting them as existing in society’s margins by aligning them with blackness implicitly or explicitly. Consider Robert Mitchum’s detective in Out of the Past (1947), who moves through black spaces with an ease that suggests a familiarity, even a relatability. But dig even deeper into its shadows, and noir reveals itself to have a racial outlook more complex than what its wider cultural image boasts. Such is the case with the Harry Belafonte–produced and starring Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which premiered in the twilight of noir’s classic period, subverting and complicating what came before it.
Odds Against Tomorrow takes a premise common to noir — three diametrically opposed men, bound together by desperation despite simmering animosity, plan a heist that seals their doom — but twists it into a sharp sociological consideration about the perils of mid-century racism. It’s a bracing film that uses the thematic concerns and aesthetic pleasures of its genre — the impotence of men prone to machismo, the futility of chasing the illusory American Dream, richly stylized dialogue, sharply constructed character studies of urban life — in order to reshape the noir landscape and indict racism. It also creates a new dimension in the genre by placing a black man at its center.
Odds Against Tomorrow is stunning example of how the racial dimension of a film can’t be untangled from its visual and sonic prowess. Much of Hollywood’s history is defined by a grating inability to light black actors in ways that show their beauty. They are instead thrust into the margins, given little visual or narrative consideration, especially during Hollywood’s Golden Age. But Odds Against Tomorrow depicts its black characters with a beauty and sincerity that astonishes. It has a litany of aesthetic pleasures: the piercing grit with which Robert Wise (known for classics including West Side Story) directs the film; Dede Allen’s exemplary editing; the adaptation by blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky; the cinematography by Joseph C. Brun, which is resplendent with inky shadows and careful lighting; the haunting, energetic score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which is one of the best noir has ever had. That it was shot on location in New York adds to the grit of the film.
The most entrancing aspect of the film is the stellar acting of its cast. Like all great noir, Odds Against Tomorrow is full of small yet impactful character turns. The film spends much of its beginning introducing layers to its central criminals. Burke (Ed Begley) is a former cop who plans the heist. He follows his greed, even though he knows the risks in doing so. Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) is an ex-con fresh from Sing Sing with a hard-bitten streak of virulent racism, who is supported by his unerringly kind girlfriend, Lorry (Shelley Winters). Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) is a nightclub singer with a mean gambling habit that’s left him riddled with debt, putting a strain on his relationship with his ex, Ruth (Kim Hamilton), and their daughter, Eadie (Louise Thorne). What makes the stunning, explosive finish to the heist such a gut punch is how the film takes its time exploring the interior lives of its characters, and the place within society these men hold. They exist at the fringes of society for a variety of reasons: professional disgrace, prison time, race. For Johnny, his place within this world is defined by an inability to live fully. He must grit his teeth through injustices or risk violence. That Johnny is just as, if not more, complex than his criminal brethren stymies the expectations that come with a genre that typically only sees black people playing jazz or aiding white characters, nobly not searching for their own sense of power.
Burke’s solitude (punctuated only by the dog he dotes on) and Slater’s abusive dynamic with Lorry work together to create a portrait of men desperate for the glory that proves elusive, but who find joy, however fleeting, in small moments. But it’s Johnny’s introduction I am most struck by. “That’s good, but it was better when you wanted it,” a disgruntled paramour, Kitty (Carmen De Lavallade), says to Johnny in the lengthy club scene introduction after a brief kiss. Johnny brings pain to every note he sings. He navigates a white man lasciviously hitting on him with a grimace. His forceful persona buckles when faced by the weight of his gambling debt. This lengthy introduction shows the grace and humanity Belafonte lends to his acting work as he constructs a man barely hanging onto his tattered soul.
In her second autobiography, Shelley Winters mentions the conditions of making the film — how it was shot in a “bitter cold winter” on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in Upstate New York, the delays and script changes, the gimlet-eyed care Belafonte put into bringing this story to life. There’s a sense of doom and paranoia that hums in the film from the very beginning, one that perhaps can be partially attributed to the nature of its independent production. Gloria Grahame, the quintessential femme fatale, also makes a small appearance as Helen, Slater’s lustful neighbor who is drawn to the brutal machismo he projects. Ed Begley wonderfully inhabits the run-down, ramshackle neediness of Burke’s character, who is willing to risk death for a slim shot of the glory that keeps escaping him. But the performances of Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte — especially in how they play against each other — are the bitter, beating heart of this film.
Ryan is an actor who found glory in noir. While in real life, the Chicago-born actor was dedicated to fighting for racial justice and held pacifist views, onscreen he excels in the profane. He moves from lustful to embittered to boldly violent at a clip. In films like The Set-Up (also directed by Robert Wise), Clash by Night, and Born to be Bad, he brings gravitas to the darkest renderings of the urban white male in noir. In his hands, the archetype gains a complex humanity. These men are ruthless and craven, but also wounded animals, lashing out at whatever target they can find.
Odds Against Tomorrow is one of Ryan’s most noxious roles. The film never flinches from Slater’s racism. It’s as axiomatic as his status as a convict, his propensity to violence. If anything, Ryan leans into it. He gleefully calls a young black girl a “pickaninny” in his first few minutes of screen time. He hardens when a black elevator operator tries to make small talk. He delights in testing Johnny’s mettle, pushing him toward violence as if eager to beat a black man for any reason whatsoever. He says “nigger” regularly, bluntly, without apology or hesitation. His relationships with women like Lorry and Helen feel sad and sexually charged to different degrees. It’s clear in their interactions that Slater’s brutality runs deep. The cumulative effect of watching Slater treat women with callous misogyny, and Johnny as less than a man, is this: His character is a venomous indictment of the white male power fantasy noir typically falls into. He’s the photo negative of the charming albeit existentially struggling criminal who acts as the anchor for many noir classics.
Odds Against Tomorrow features Belafonte’s best performance. He has a self-containment, a poise that is equal parts precise and alluring. But there’s also something unexpected: a complete lack of warmth. There’s a chilly undercurrent to his charisma. His smile seems false, practiced, save for when he interacts with his young daughter. He’s menacing in ways that jolt. Take, for example, when he goes to Ruth’s apartment to pick up Eadie. When he leans in to kiss Ruth, she hesitates at first, on the precipice of giving in to the pleasure, but turns her head, icing him out. His eyes grow cold, his glare pointed, his face cut by the shadows of the door. “What did I ever see in you?” he asks her. “That,” she remarks, hearing their daughter’s voice. This moment suggests that a simpler life could have been Johnny’s — one with a more upstanding position as a musician, with potlucks and PTA meetings, and cigars with friends instead of planning heists with white men who loathe his existence — but his addiction, his fears, made this an impossibility.
But what’s especially stunning about the film is that Johnny never falls into stereotype. He isn’t a noble martyr, but a frightfully broken human being, never cowering from Slater’s racism. That the film portrays Johnny as complex, aching, and brutal in his own ways, while never forgetting how being a black man effects his existence, demonstrates the depth of its power in reshaping the noir landscape.
There are no happy endings in Odds Against Tomorrow. The hate Slater has for Johnny and Johnny’s appetites doom them to a fiery finish. The final image of the film, their bodies burned beyond recognition, is meant to show that the racism that undercut their partnership will always lead to horror. Ultimately, Odds Against Tomorrow is an incisive, gorgeously constructed exploration of racial hatred and greed, using a genre that is always at its best when examining the ills at the heart of American identity.