President: Mary Alwyn
Patron: Vilem Tausky CBE
by Ian Johnson
William Alwyn was fond of what he called his 'big score' for the film Odd Man Out. He liked it so much that he brietly stated its major theme in the first movement of his First Symphony, and when he was invited to speak at the 1958 Edinburgh Festival and the National Film Theatre in London, his screening of the film's long emotional climax was a stunning conclusion to a memorable lecture.
Odd Man Out was a product of a unique period in the British Cinema. The industry had emerged from the Second World War stronger than it had ever been and would ever be, tackling subjects that would never have been considered in the late Thirties with experience and talent equal to that of Hollywood. Alwyn's own reputation had been considerably enhanced by his scores for some of the War's best films, including Desert Victory, Our Country, Fires Were Started, and The Way Ahead, while director Carol Reed had also become known as one of the most important talents of the period. Reed and Alwyn had worked together on The True Glory and they came together again - with Filippo Del Giudice and his company Two Cities Films - for Odd Man Out.
This film of shades and shadows, a British film noir, is the story of the final eight hours in the life of Johnny MacQueen, an IRA man on the run in Belfast. During a disastrous robbery at a linen mill Johnny, played with austere vulnerability by James Mason, kills one of the clerks and, seriously wounded himself, is separated from his companions when he falls from the getaway car. What follows is an allegoric, almost impressionistic, tale of Johnny's delirious journey through the shiny and wet - then snowy - dark streets of the city. On his journey the people he meets shun him or use him for their own ends. The film climaxes with Johnny, mauled and dying, hunted through the snow by the police, Kathleen, the woman who loves him to desperation, a crafty caged bird seller as empty as his name (Shell), and a meek-mannered priest named Father Tom. Kathleen has arranged Johnny's escape by a ship that leaves at midnight, but she finds him too late: as the police close in she fires two shots, the police reply, and two bodies lie in the snow. The police examine them, Father Tom leads Shell away, the ship's siren sounds and the clock strikes an ironic twelve o'clock.
Odd Man Out was one of a series of 'man on the run' subjects made by the British cinema at this time. It would have been in late 1945 or early 1946 that Alwyn was invited to write the score, even before filming started. 'By the end of the war', he wrote in Winged Chariot 'we were all working as a team and I myself was taking an active interest in all matters of production as well as composing the scores' He recalled the initial process: 'I read the book and discussed the film script with Carol Reed long before shooting in the studio started. We worked out the very pace of the music with tha aid olf a piano while I improvised and Carol limped up and down the room in the person of the wounded gangster, Johnny. Most of the scenes were shot to pre-recordings and transformed and orchestrated afterwards. I worked in the closest collaboration with the editor, so that we knew what we were doing individually with sounds effects and music, and the final result was a complete integration of sound and visuals - a sound film in the real meaning of the word, where music had been allowed to speak in terms of the 'Film as a Fine Art.'
Alwyn wrote a large number of film scores, but to each one he brought fresh inspiration. His contribution to the dramatic-thematic structure of Odd Man Out cannot be over-emphasised: his score knits together and defines the separate elements of the film. Reed was very much of Alwyn's opinion concerning the collective work on his films, and relied on the efforts of his studio collaborators, especially the composers. When they were weak, the construction of Reed's films showed their seams and joints; Odd Man Out is a masterpiece because of its structural indebtedness to Alwyn.
AIwyn achieved this largely through his use of leitmotif. It is customary for film composers to score a leitmotif for each main character, and for Odd Man Out Alwyn wrote one each for Johnny, Kathleen and Shell. He uses the most important, Johnny's theme, sparingly and saves it mainly to cue each of the occasions when Johnny returns from a temporary refuge to his journey through the streets. The last and most memorable is the film's nine-minute climax when he leaves the refuge of the artist's studio in an attempt to reach Father Tom's presbytery and Kathleen. The score is a continuous rhapsody composed of Johnny's theme, Kathleen's theme, and moments of menace or dramatic intensity. Alwyn's music knits together, and balances the tension of the whole of this final section of the film.
The film moves to its resolution as the main theme swells and Johnny is seen writhing in pain against iron railings. A fanfare raises hopeful expectations, and there is a cut to Kathleen running past and skidding on the snow as she suddenly sees him. The fanfare climaxes and there is the briefest of silences beibre she cries 'Johnny!'. That short silence, coming after an extended sequence of music lasting many minutes, is lacerating. 'Kathleen!', cries Johnny, 'Is it really you?'. Her theme is quietly reintroduced but instead of running to meet him, as we expect, she holds back and tells him 'Come to me and see!'. 'I can't', he replies. 'If you are real, stretch out your hands to mine'.
Behind the dialogue the score has been rising to another climax, and as Johnny reaches out his hands and Kathleen runs to embrace him, cymbals and an orchestral surge hold out exquisite longing and a hope that Johnny will be saved. it is a moment of high romanticism, and Kathleen's theme is sustained quietly for a few seconds beneath more dialogue until the sound of the ship's siren rein forces our hope of salvation. But even as the siren sounds, a subdued menacing fanfare introduces Johnny's theme and its regular muted drum beat which leads to the film's tragic conclusion.
As Dai Vaughan commented to the British Film Institute in 1995, 'We track sideways along the railings with Kathleen and Johnny, and an almost casual glance over her shoulder cues a cut to a line of police and police-cars advancing upon us, dimly seen, their torches and headlights glimmering through the snow. The music simply continues its steady tread; and the fact that there is no extraneous emphasis placed upon this cut gives it a quality of the inevitable. I know no other film which conveys such utter despair.'
Alwyn never forgot the value of silence. It can be seen time and time again in the films - documentaries as well as features - that he worked on. And of course it is used to full account in Odd Man Out, particularly the scene of Kathleen's discovery of Johnny against the railings. But there is an opposite to silence, such as in the sequence where Kathleen is being followed by a plain-clothes policeman and, to shake him off, enters a dance hall. An abrupt cut to a sign reading 'No Jitterbugging' is followed by a pan to jitterbugging couples. The dance hall appears ugly and incongruous, a feeling induced entirely by the dance music which Alwyn scored as a blaring, strident, repeated trumpet phrase. It is disturbing, but it illuminates the nature of the film we are watching: like a smack of real life, it reveals by contrast that Kathleen's world is swathed in romanticism. If the cinema has drugged us into a dreamlike state then this sequence breaks into those dreams, and we are happy to leave the dance hall to return with Kathleen to the dreamworld of the Belfast streets.
The last of the four hallucinatory sequences in Odd Man Out is set in the artist Lukey's studio. He wishes to capture in oils the truth of life and death, which he hopes to see in Johnny's eyes. Tober, the failed medical student, dresses Johnny's wounds and wants to send him to hospital, but Lukey insists that he stays until lie has finished painting him. Shell, anxious to take Johnny to Father Tom, joins the discussion. They fall into heated argument and their voices become jumbled. The music starts over a close-up of Johnny's face, the camera makes rocking movements, and there is a cut to a subjective shot of Johnny's view of the studio. Then, as the voices talk about the police and trials, the pictures in the studio slide away from the walls and line up. Commentators have compared the rows of paintings to a jury, but my own interpretation is to regard them -staring and deformed, frightening and impersonal, reminiscent of the work of Edvard Munch - as so many strangers staring at Johnny but not helping him: the trauma of a delirious man, incarcerated for fourteen months and now thrust into an insecure world.
At this point Shell interrupts the scene. 'Have You heard tell of Father Tom?', he asks. The mention of this name diverts Johnny's delirium, and an image of the priest appears at a distance amidst the paintings, smiling and mouthing silently. 'Louder, Father, speak louder - I can't hear you', Johnny says. The voices of Lukey and Tober break off abruptly on a cutaway of them watching, but the music continues (knitting the shots together) while Johnny continues 'Ah, we've always drowned your voice with our shouting...'. Here Alwyn introduces the fanfare we have come to associate with Johnny's theme: it is a sign that something significant is about to happen. Johnny declaims (rather improbably for a Roman Catholic) from the Authorised Version of St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians. Alwyn's powerful score illuminates the sequence: as Johnny rises to his feet the music becomes an expressive, 'inspirational' reworking of his theme. A cornet is heard, retlecting the words 'sounding brass', and we recall that brass fanfares heralded each introduction of Johnny's theme throughout the film.
Johnny has at last seen the truth and meaning to life, a meaning he was grasping for at the very start of the film when lie said 'I believe iineverything we are doing, but this violence isn't getting us anywhere... If only we could throw our guns away and make our cause in Parliament instead of in the back streets'. The film's message is therefore double-edged: first, it is a cry for charity, and we remember all those by whom Johnny has been used; but it is also his realisation that seeking after power is as nothing. At last he has grasped the meaning of humility and love, and the mood sets up the bleak finale that follows almost immediately.
Odd Man Out was given its London premiere On 30th January 1947. It received the British Film of the Year Award, and some critics considered it to be the best British film ever made. Carol Reed immediately started work on his next production and Alwyn was again asked to write the score. The result was The Fallen Idol.
'Oue of the fascinations of composing for the cinema', wrote Alwyn, 'is that it is a young art, and to pioneer in any aspect of it is rewarding and stimulating to the creative artist'. Odd Man Out was produced fifty years ago, yet I am not sure that the grammar of film composition has developed greatly since Alwyn's day. It may be that, unaware, he himself brought the art to a near final statement.
© IAN JOHNSON
This article first appeared in the William Alwyn Society Newsletter, December 1997
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