There's more than meets the eye to Odd Man Out, a Laurie Green novel turned into a movie in 1947 but does it glorify the Irish Republican Army.
In 1947, Carol Reed famously turned Laurie Green’s novel ‘Odd Man Out’ into an Oscar-nominated film noir with James Mason in the lead role and many of the leading lights of Irish acting.
Green helped adapt his novel for the big screen yet even one of the film’s Irish stars, legendary actor Cyril Cusack, described it as “…a bad book made into a very good film”.
Yet there is much more to Green’s novel than meets the eye.
The book (and film) tell the story of an IRA leader in Belfast who is wounded in a botched robbery and is then hunted through the city’s streets. With ground-breaking direction and cinematography, Reed’s film was, and continues, to receive critical acclaim, infamously being cited by Roman Polanski as his favorite film and influencing later works like Taxi Driver and much of more recent film-making about 'the troubles'. It was even remade in 1969 (as 'The Lost Man') with Sidney Poitier, then at the height of his fame, as a black militant on the run in New York.
Read more: Top movies about Northern Ireland's Troubles
The film’s opening titles tell viewers that “This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved."
Similarly, the novel never mentions either the IRA (calling it ‘the Organisation’) or Belfast by name.
Yet, despite this denial, much of the description of the IRA in Green’s novel accurately mirrors historical events from 1943-44 while he was writing the book.
More intriguingly, subtle shifts in the IRA’s structure and circumstances between 1944 and 1946 are again reflected in changes in detail between the novel and the film. All of this suggests that Green was, in fact, very much concerned with the historical accuracy of his depiction of the IRA.
Green wrote the novel between October 1943, when he finished 'On the Edge of the Sea', and August 1944, when he produced the first full typescript.
In the novel, the IRA’s Chief of Staff (Johnny Murtah) is hiding out in Belfast - the only time an IRA Chief of Staff was ordinarily resident in Belfast was 1942-43 and again, briefly in 1944-5. This was not necessarily public knowledge.
Yet by the time of the film screenplay in 1946, the main character, now called Johnny McQueen is merely “… the leader of the organization in this city… ” and is clearly no longer the Chief of Staff as he states that “…I've got my orders and I'll see them through.”
By this time the IRA’s leadership was once again based in Dublin (all of this is described in more detail in the Belfast Battalion book on the history of the Belfast IRA at that time).
The background is given for Johnny – as having recently escaped prison – matches the IRA’s leadership at the time, like Hugh McAteer, Jimmy Steele and Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns.
Frederick Laurence Green
Born in Portsmouth, England in 1902, but with Irish roots in Cork, Frederick Laurence (Laurie) Green had moved to Belfast in 1929 and all fourteen of his novels were published while living in the city.
One other novel, ‘Of the Night of the Fire’ was also made into a film. Margaret Edwards, who had married Green, was from a well-known Belfast family.
Green became an integral part of Belfast’s arts and literary community some of whom, like John Hewitt, provided the inspiration for characters that feature in 'Odd Man Out'.
In reference to 'Odd Man Out', Green reputedly chastised the Belfast art scene about the lack of political focus in its outputs, saying that “…I’m writing what you and your friends should be writing about, the drama’s that are going on here. You people are ignoring what is going on on your own doorstep.” (recorded by W.J. McCormack in his 2015 biography ‘Northman: John Hewitt 1907-1987’).
The Unionist government, though, noted the political undertones in Green’s work and provided no assistance when the film was being made.
Many episodes in 'Odd Man Out' reflect real events that happened during the years just before Green published the novel. The immediate inspiration for the central event was a botched robbery at Clonard Mill in Odessa Street in October 1943 in which an RUC constable (Patrick McCarthy) was shot dead. Teresa O’Brien, who betrays IRA men to the RUC in another key scene, echoes a Teresa Wright, a widow who in 1937 claimed shot was fired at her Quadrant Street home due to ‘ill-feeling against her’ and because “…several people had called me an informer …”.
'Odd Man Out' also has a clear sense of internal debates within the IRA (which, again, may not have been widely known). In the film, Johnny McQueen says “…we could throw the guns away, make our cause in the parliaments instead of in the back streets…” at the same time as internal IRA memos were discussing how far to get involved in politics.
This also foreshadows later disputes within Irish republicanism over abstentionism and political engagement. All this suggests that Green was very well informed about what was going on within the IRA. The likely source for this was Denis Ireland, a prominent figure in Belfast’s literary scene and a leading light in the Ulster Union Club in Belfast which (despite the name) was the main source of Protestant recruits for the IRA. Even Johnny’s brief stay with two Protestant women may be a knowing wink in the direction of safe houses used by the IRA in unionist areas of Belfast like the Shankill Road.
Taken together the book and movie are filled with cues that would resonate with a wide range of audiences. Green and Reed’s high-brow themes of personal redemption and internal torment chimed with the concerns of many contemporary authors and film-makers.
Writers like Ruth Barton (from Trinity College in Dublin) have examined how Reed explores concepts of gender representation, viewing James Mason's phenomenal performance as Johnny through the prism of (toxic) masculinity in post-war Britain and Kathleen Ryan's as the antithesis of the quintessential bourgeois heroine of contemporary British cinema. Green, though, provides rich pickings for a Belfast audience who could knowingly follow and engage with the geography of the book and film in a way that would escape other audiences. As Johnny moves around, they would understand the political and cultural significance of the different parts of the city.
Others too reacted to a perceived realism in 'Odd Man Out'. Hysterical outrage from Bertie Smylie (using the pseudonym Nichevo), in ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times has a wonderfully contemporary air:
“There is no doubt that it is a really good film. There equally is no doubt that, in essence, it amounts to a glorification of the IRA! If I had been a youth, emerging from the Theatre Royal on Sunday night, and saw on the walls of Trinity College the slogan “Join the IRA”, I have not the least doubt that I should have been sorely tempted to do so! All the romance is on the side of “the Organisation”. James Mason gives a magnificent performance as Johnny McQueen; and, although the name of the IRA never was mentioned, nobody who knows anything about this country in general, or of Belfast in particular, can have the least doubt concerning the “Organisation’s” identity. So much for that!“
Laurie Green's novel was first published by Michael Josephy in March 1945. A collection of Greens personal papers are held by the John J. Burns Library in Boston College. You can read the historical background to 'Odd Man Out' in 'Belfast Battalion: a history of the Belfast IRA, 1922-1969'.
You can watch the full movie, Odd Man Out, here:
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