Many people are familiar with Carol Reed’s ‘Odd Man Out’, an Oscar-nominated film noir starring James Mason set in Belfast. The film was adapted from a novel of the same name, written by Laurie Green and adapted by him for Reed’s film. Green’s novel was first published in March 1945, seventy-five years ago this month. One of the film’s Irish stars, legendary actor Cyril Cusack, dismissed Green’s novel as “…a bad book made into a very good film”. Yet there is much more to Green’s novel than meets the eye.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t even watched the film, never mind read the novel, skip to the end of this post where there is a link to the film on YouTube.
The book (and subsequent 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 favourite film and influencing later work 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.
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 organisation, 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. However, the novel repeatedly name checks locations in Belfast and Mason’s journey takes him from an IRA safehouse somewhere off the Falls Road across the city to Sailortown. While The Crown Bar, which inspired the set used to film a famous scene set in a pub in the film, the bar in the novel is clearly located in Sailortown in the Belfast docks area.
And further, despite the initial denial, much of the description of the IRA in Green’s novel also accurately mirrors historical events from 1943-44 when 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 his previous novel ‘On the Edge of the Sea’ and August 1944, when he produced the first full typescript of ‘Odd Man Out’. In the novel, the IRA’s Chief of Staff (Johnny Murtah) is hiding out in Belfast. It can’t be a coincidence that 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.
Even more revealingly, by the time of the film screenplay in 1946, the main character, now called Johnny McQueen is merely “…the leader of the organisation 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 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.
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 (hence his move to the city). Green himself 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’. The journey that the IRA leader ‘Johnny’ makes across Belfast in the book takes him further and further from the safety of his hideout in the Falls to the scene of a robbery, onto Belfast’s streets, into a Protestant district and, from there to Sailortown. Green’s Belfast audience would have clearly understood the importance of Sailortown as a location, having been the ‘storm centre’ of violence both in 1935 and 1920-22. He next ends up in the hands of the Belfast arts community with characters lampooning the likes of Hewitt.
This isn’t accidental. In reference to ‘Odd Man Out’, Green reputedly chastised the Belfast arts 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 dramas 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, clearly noted the political undertones in Green’s work and made a point of providing 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 shots were 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 and the Village.
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 phenomonal performance as Johnny through the prism of (toxic) masculinity in post-war Britain and Kathleen Ryan’s as the antithesis of the quintessential bourgeouis 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 “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!“
For all the quality of the film, it is the collected work of the novel and film that gives Odd Man Out a historical authenticity that means you need to read the novel to appreciate many aspects of the film.
Laurie Green’s novel was first published by Michael Joseph 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’.
So if you haven’t watched the film (never mind read the novel), you can watch the whole thing here on Youtube before reading the rest of this: