A Series of Crimes: Odds Against Tomorrow, by Aaron Pinkston
Though the last two films in this series (White Heat and Band of Outsiders) have had heist film elements, Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow is the first fully invested heist film I’ve reviewed here. As a subgenre of the crime film, heist films have a number of important distinguishable features. Foremost, they have perhaps the easiest criminals to root for — the ultimate goal of the crime isn’t to hurt people, but to take from the wealthy. Characters usually rob a bank, not a particular person, but the financial crises of recent years has given this a new perspective, with banks not the most popular institutions. Many heist films are as much about sticking it to the man than anything else, making its characters the ultimate 99% heroes.
This is a particularly important change considering the status of the victims. In the typical Hollywood film, even some crime films, the victim should be the natural point of our sympathies, but this is almost never the case in heist films. Like in Odds Against Tomorrow, the mark is usually an institution like a bank or casino, with little actual human connection. If there is a face to the mark, the character is almost certainly a villain because of their wealth. If they aren’t flat-out greedy, they simply don’t deserve their money as much as the hero. Criminals in heist films can be either bred by their environment (they really need the money) or career criminals — Odds Against Tomorrow gives us looks at both. Audience sympathies will likely side stronger with those who turn to a crime out of necessity, as with any crime film, but because of the victim’s lack, this is always the case.
The ultimate narrative joy of these films, however, is seeing a plan come together and then fall apart — it is a genre of “too good to be true.” We don’t necessarily want our heroes to lose or be killed (usually dictated in the classic crime film), but we absolutely want it all to get as messy as possible. The heist plot in Odds Against Tomorrow is rather simple. Three men plan to knock off a bank after-hours just after the nightly business deliveries. Noticing the every night occurrence of a sandwich and coffee delivery from a local store gives the opening — if the crew is able to pose as the delivery man and force their way in, the job will basically be done. With a security system that doesn’t go much further than a chain on a door, what could go wrong? In this particular case, the tensions between team members.
In direct opposition to other crime films, the heist film prioritizes the team over the individual. Even though Cagney is a member of a crime syndicate, you wouldn’t necessarily know by watching one of his gangster films. Here, though, it is all about the dynamics of the team. Odds Against Tomorrow is an interesting case given the political times and the particular characters who make up the team. As I’ve mentioned before, genre filmmaking is often defined by the time, and 1959 was certainly marked by the growing civil rights movement in America. Though not the first or most important film depicting racial relations so bluntly, Odds Against Tomorrow was still ahead of the game — the landmark film The Defiant Ones came a year before, but films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night were still a decade away.
Our two main characters stand at opposite poles. Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) is a southern tough guy and potential career criminal and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) is a lower-middle-class black musician down on his luck from a bad string of gambling misses. Unlike racially charged films we’ve seen post-1990 or so, the goal of Odds Against Tomorrow isn’t for Earle to finally understand Johnny or accept him when he’s good at his work. With the end of the civil rights era still years away, mutual growth isn’t really an option. There isn’t really any indication that Johnny isn’t up for the job, as he seems confident, smooth and we see him stand up against pressure, yet Earle seizes every opportunity to scrutinize him.
The racial struggle in Odds Against Tomorrow doesn’t exist in any socioeconomic light, as both characters seem to belong to the same class. Johnny is perhaps even more cultured than Earle, well dressed and well spoken. There is even a subplot that suggests that Earle doesn’t work because his girlfriend makes enough money for them to live, supposing that working-man Johnny is more of a man in this 1950s society. Still, as Earle says, “[Johnny] is no different just because he’s wearing a $20 pair of shoes.” Racial tensions today may be built more on class implications, but Earle is obviously a product of a society where African Americans had more difficulty rising above the color of their skin through economics and culture.
Though Earle would be the film’s hero, he’s blatantly a racist, which the film doesn’t accept or excuse. Johnny, on the other hand, is among the growing sector of African Americans who were not content to merely assimilate into white society. Centering the film with these two headstrong characters constantly pushing at each other ends up being more compelling than the rudimentary heist plot. Race relations are quite literally explosive in the film’s conclusion. In a bit of irony, the scorched bodies of our leads can’t be differentiated, no longer separated by skin color.