It’s particularly sad to learn about the death of Harry Belafonte last week. But he had a long life, having been born in March 1927 and he certainly made the most of his time with careers as a popular singer and recording star, a fiercely committed civil rights campaigner and a film actor and producer with his own company. I have long admired him in all three activities and in film, one of his most important ventures was this 1959 noir film set in New York City and Hudson, NY. Belafonte is the leading player and co-producer for HarBel, his own production company. The film was distributed in the US and UK by United Artists.

Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), is a man in trouble

The film stands out as a major feature made on a modest budget with an African-American lead for a high profile American crime film – probably for the first time. Its success is also due to Belafonte’s ability to attract top class talent, whether it was producer-director Robert Wise, writers Abraham Polonsky (under the  name John O. Killens, a friend of Belafonte, because of Polonsky’s blacklisting re HUAC) and Nelson Gidding adapting a novel by William P. McGivern, cinematographer Joseph C. Brun, film editor Dede Allen and musical scorer John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. In addition to co-star Robert Ryan, the supporting cast includes actors of the calibre of Ed Begley, Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame.

Johnny with Dave Burke (Ed Begley)

The set-up is simple. David Burke (Ed Begley), an ex-cop who left the force because he wouldn’t talk to a state investigation, has a plan to rob a bank in up-state New York. He recruits Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a two-time convict sentenced for violence, including manslaughter. But now Burke needs a Black partner since the plan requires one of the trio to replace the usual guy who brings food to the bank operatives counting money after hours. Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) is a young African-American man who is a singer in a nightclub, but also a gambler who now owes big money to the mob for his gambling debts. In addition he feels the need to support his young child after his marriage breakdown. Burke’s offer of a job that promises a big payout is hard to resist as his debts mount. The slight problem is that Slater is a Southern racist originally from Oklahoma (as well as a war veteran on the edge because of possible PTSD). Robert Ryan was actually a committed leftist and anti-racist who Belafonte very much respected. In fact the cast and crew generally represent a left/liberal collective alongside young actors who Belafonte knew and wanted to help so it’s a good idea to watch out for the hints in plot, dialogue and performances.

In the club, Johnny’s girlfriend Kitty (Carmen De Lavallade) and, as the bartender, Cicely Tyson, later a star actor.
Johnny with his ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton)

This is an important film in many ways but it didn’t find a large audience on release despite some very good reviews. I remember that I showed a copy on VHS recorded from TV to my first group of media studies students in the 1980s, hoping that the glimpse of an African-American community in New York would interest my second-generation African-Caribbean students in London and it seemed to work, I suspect because of its strong genre elements, its technical and performance highs.

Earle (Robert Ryan), a dangerous presence on the street

Earle and Johnny are both desperate men. Johnny has lost a beautiful wife (who he accuses of becoming too close to her white colleagues in a Parent Teacher Association) and wants to make money to support his small daughter. His performance in a nightclub with other Black performers and clientele is brilliant but he can barely contain his anger about how he has got into this situation. Earle is similarly self-loathing feeling he has failed to ever get anywhere, mainly because he has been held back by those in charge. Both men appear to be war veterans, though in Johnny’s case that would have to be the Korean War because Belafonte was only in his early thirties in 1959. Earle is such a conformed racist that Burke has a majo task in keeping the trio together. At one point, Earle refers to Johnny as a “just a black spot on main street” – see the clip from the film below for Johnny’s response.

Johnny is watchful as he takes his daughter out in the city
Wearing dark glasses in ‘Melton’ (shot in Hudson)

The film was shot in parts of Central New York City and in the town of ‘Melton’ on the Hudson with interiors in a small independent New York studio. The street scenes have a realist feel similar to those in the NewYork crime films of Mark Hellinger in the late 1940s such as Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). The camerawork and editing are both innovative and there is a strong sense of the tension between Johnny and Earle. The excellent score would later become an MJQ album. Robert Wise directs intelligently with great control. The odds against any survivors of this enterprise are indeed very long and they are unlikely to see tomorrow so it isn’t giving too much away to reveal that the film’s ending is as apocalyptic as that of Kiss Me Deadly (US 1955) – this was the height of the Cold War so the reference is apt. The last image is a sign hanging askew which reads ‘Stop! Dead End’.

Johnny with his daughter Eadie (Lois Thorne)
Earle with Helen (Gloria Grahame), his flirtatious neighbour excited by his dangerous reputation . . .  –  everything is in the eyes

It would also be possible to categorise the narrative as having certain elements of melodrama. We meet both Johnny’s ex-wife and their child and his colleagues at the club (including a new girlfriend?). We also meet Earle’s partner, the younger Lorry (Shelley Winters) who clearly cares for him, but we also meet their neighbour Helen (Gloria Grahame) who is very interested in the dangerous Earle in terms of his sexual attraction. Given that the Production Code was about to be swept away in 1960, perhaps it is not surprising that Helen and Earle have a very sexy scene together. On the other hand we also see Earle in a bar commit a real act of violence on a young serviceman (Wayne Rogers later to star in TV’s long-running series M*A*S*H) who goads him a little too hard.

Earle in his rare vulnerable moments with Lorrie (Shelley Winters)

Odds Against Tomorrow is a fine film and highly recommended. A BFI dual-format DVD/Blu-ray was released in 2016 as a print in Academy ratio, 1.37:1 (see below). That was unusual for Hollywood in 1959 but was not that uncommon in other cinemas in Europe and Asia. There is an argument that it was released in the US in widescreen 1.85:1 but it looks fine on the BFI disc and the compositions work perfectly, especially for the noir feel. In 1959 Harry Belafonte was at his early career peak as arguably the most beautiful and sexiest man in the United States. But neither this film or his other 1959 production The World, the Flesh and the Devil were commercially successful. He still had his successful TV and music recording career but by the mid-sixties his Civil Rights activism was taking precedence. On this blog there are also postings on the (currently re-released and very good) film Buck and The Preacher (1972) and the bio-documentary Sing Your Song (US 2011). A set of notes from a 2012 event about Belafonte’s career is here.

The most beautiful man in America in 1959?