Sunday, June 21, 2020

Anti-Racist Noir: On Odds Against Tomorrow

For Ted Stolze

A few weeks into the pandemic lockdown I went through a brief noir phase. It was somehow easier to watch films from a very different time than have the uncanny experience of watching people inhabit a world that looked like the present but was governed by very different social norms. Watching people walk around and go to bars and restaurants unmasked and unaware of social distancing was a bit too much, it was easier to watch people wear fedoras and ties, make calls from pay phones, and live on a diet of alcohol and coffee. A world long gone was easier to watch than a world that had just disappeared.

It was during this period, and thanks to a friends recommendation, that I watched Odds Against Tomorrow. Odds Against Tomorrow immediately calls into question such a facile distinction between the present and the past. It seems untimely, not quite of the period it came from or from the present, almost like something from a different timeline, or at the very least a path not taken. There is tendency to confuse the structures and confines of an eras films with the era itself. Our image of the fifties is informed more by what could not make it past the eyes of studio executives than the actual period. The film was made in 1959, directed by Robert Wise, known for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, produced by Harry Belafonte, who also starred, and written by blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky. The entire film can be viewed on youtube here. It is sometimes considered the last of the long line of films retroactively classified as film noir, but it is more striking the way that it tries to use the formula of the heist film to address the simmering racism of its period. 

The film's plot is simple enough, a retired and discredited former policeman, Burke has the idea for a perfect heist. He enlists the help of two people, Slater (a hardened ex-conn and veteran) and Ingram (played by Belafonte, a jazz club singer with more debts than the can handle). They both initially refuse, but for different reasons. Ingram sees it as "social climbing," stepping far beyond the kind of criminal activity he is willing to undertake. As he puts it. "That's the firing squad. That's for junkies and joy boys. We're people." As Polonsky states in an interview, "Ingram's argument is based on the notion of professionalism: we're not in that line of work." People is opposed to professional. Slater's response is different, but also entails a particular sense of what it means to be people. One drawn along the lines of race rather than work. He refuses to work with a "colored boy," to use his terms. They come to change their minds of course, a heist film needs its heist, but how they do so sets up not only their particular character but also the film's prevailing sense of destiny.

Ingram gets in trouble with his bookie and finds himself forced to get involved, to make the jump from "people" to career criminal, as the only way to protect himself and his daughter. Ingram's predicament does not immediately underscore race. However, there is an interesting scene when a bunch of his bookie's goons follow him to a skating rink in Central Park. Ingram threatens to go to a nearby police car. One goon responds "That'll be the day," making it clear that they are threatening him both with the overt force of muscle and the more subtle force of racism. The cop will automatically take their word over his, side with the goons because being white is more important than being above the law. The cop turns out to be black, however, and the two goons scurry away unwilling to test the extent to which their white skin still carries authority. While the particular instance fails the general point stands; Ingram cannot rely on legitimate authorities to protect him from the underworld. 

Slater's transformation from refusal to agreement is slightly more complicated. Slater lives with his girlfriend, Lorry (played by Shelley Winters). Shelley Winters is the master of a portraying a particular kind of woman, one who is committed to the romantic ideal of the couple even as the reality fails her. In some of her greatest films she is married to someone who does not want her, who marries her for something or someone else. In Night of the Hunter she is married only for the money that Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) believes is hidden on her property and in Lolita  Humbert Humbert (James Mason) only marries can get closer to her daughter, the object of his obsession, even in Winchester '73 where could be said to play the romantic interest, Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) is more interested in recovering the gun and getting revenge than ending up with her. One could also add to the list A Place in the Sun, where Winters plays the working class girlfriend that is cast aside like so much ballast in the face of the opulence that Elizabeth Taylor represents. What Winters excels at is not just conveying the sadness of the neglected wife or scorned girlfriend, but the cruel optimism, to use Berlant's term, of her performance, she constantly acts as if somehow, through her dedication she could make these marriages or relationships work despite all evidence to the contrary. All of this is more for for a post on the Shelley Winters and the cruel optimism of her attachment to marriage that I should write at some point. One could write an entire criticism of marriage and the figure of the patient and saintly wife by looking at the films of Shelley Winters. 

Slater and Lorry

Lorry works at a restaurant, and is more than happy to be the breadwinner while Slater searches for work, which is not easy given his criminal record. Despite her generosity, or really because of it, Slater finds his status of being dependent upon her demeaning. He rebels against the small tasks Lorry asks in exchange, refusing to babysit for a neighbor (played by Gloria Grahame).  He rebels agains the feminizing task of babysitting by seducing the neighbor instead. Later, when picking up a dress from a dry cleaners, he beats up a young soldier who is showing off his jiu-iitsu style self-defense moves he learned in the army. The soldier calls it "atomic warfare," underscoring that it is a matter of the new versus the old. Although Slater is able to feign and punch the soldier, injuring him, the point still stands, he is getting older and won't be a tough guy for much longer. His barroom fight and affair with the neighbor are an attempt to hold onto the last remnant of an identity that is fading. 

Slater and Ingram both take the job, and were destined to do so from the moment it was presented to them. This destiny takes different forms. For Ingram it is structural, as a black man he is caught between the criminal underworld that threatens him and a law that is not guaranteed to protect him, while for Slater it is more internal, it is the loss of his standing as a man. For Burke the money is a utopian possibility, a break the debts and burdens of the past. He is the closet thing the film comes to a kind of communist ideal. He sees racism as just a remnant of the past. He tells Slater, 

"Don't beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater. We're in this together, each man equal and we're taking care of each other. It's one big play, a one and only chance to grab stakes forever, and I don't want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm in Oklahoma. You got it?"

Racism is a remnant of the past. Solidarity is the future. Fredric Jameson says somewhere that heist films are perhaps the closest Hollywood ever gets to a representation of unalienated work. I would argue that there is a second way in which heist films confront the problem with work. Heist films invariably deal with the difference between concept and execution, between the plan and how it plays out. Almost invariably every heist film shows us scenes of planning in which timing, location, and actions are all drawn up in an elaborate idea of the perfect crime, almost the Platonic ideal of crime. Usually this is coupled with the assurance that not only will they get away with it, but no one will be hurt. This idea then confronts a sloppy material reality in which cars fail to start, guards abandon their post, or some other contingent and stubborn fact of reality serves as a wedge separating the ideal conception and the material execution. Heist films are as much about the difference between theory and practice as they are about the ideal of work, and it is in the intersection of those two aspects that they present their particular way of looking at the world. 

In this case the plan is fairly straightforward. Up the Hudson River about a hundred miles from New York City there is a town, referred to in the film as Melton, where the bank employees work late on Thursdays preparing the cash for Friday's big payday. They order sandwiches from a nearby diner and a waiter, a black man, delivers them to the back door. The plan is to have Ingram replace the waiter and then force open the backdoor by gunpoint. Then to take off with the money in a specially designed getaway car--a souped up car made to look like an inconspicuous beaten up station wagon. Such perfect plans are meant to go awry. What is striking here is that the film gives us several possible ways it could go bad, all of which contribute to the tension. A gas station attendant checks under the hood and spots the ramped up engine, and Ingram gets stopped by a cop when he is a witness to an accident. The gas station attendant and the cop are external forces threatening the heist, the collective from the outside, and while each provides a moment of tension neither are its ultimate undoing. An external cause is not needed because the group of three is already internally torn by Slater's racism and anger. 

There is something uncanny about watching a film where cloth masks are used as a disguise

Everything goes well at first. Burke bumps into the waiter on his way out of the diner, delaying him just enough so that Ingram can slip in and replace him, showing up at the back door of the bank with a box of sandwiches and coffee. The bank guard does not notice that one black man has replaced another, and Ingram is able to jam open the door so that Burke and Slater can barge in. The plan begins to fall apart when the original waiter shows up with a fresh batch of sandwiches and coffee to replace the ones he dropped. Slater lashes out at the waiter, free to show the racial hostility that he has kept concealed for so long. In the conflict with the waiter he refuses to give the key to the getaway car to Ingram. This results in a slight but fatal change of plans, as Burke goes for the get away car rather than Ingram. Burke, dressed as hunter, attracts the attention of the police in a way that Ingram, as a black man dressed as a waiter would perhaps not. To see a waiter leaving a bank after delivering food is one thing to see a stranger in hunting jacket is something else. This brings the attention of the police. Burke is wounded in the shootout and kills himself to avoid capture. Slater and Ingram chase each other to an oil refinery more intent on killing each other than escaping. Their gunfire causes the refinery to explode and they are left as two chard bodies, bodies which no longer have white or black skin to tell them apart. If that is not enough of a moral of the story this is the film's final shot. 

I am less interested in the didactic final shots of the film than the way the film juxtaposes necessity and contingency in its narrative. Burke believes that racism is only a remnant of the past, something left from the civil war, and that shared prosperity will erase it. All of which makes him perhaps more of a liberal than a communist. In contrast to his stated philosophy the film gives us a vision of racism as something so deeply entrenched in the little society, so overdetermined by its intersection with class and gender, that the only question is what seemingly contingent event will cause it to explode. As I thought about this film again and again during the weeks in which my attention shifted from the pandemic to the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd all I could think was that US took the dead end of entrenched racism a long time ago. Watching the film sixty years later its warning seems more like a path not taken. 

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