Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) out of Harry Belafonte’s own production outfit, and directed by Robert Wise, is a late noir with a black man as a lead. He’s not just a figure in the background: he’s the hinge of the plot. Not surprising since it’s Harry’s outfit.
The film is a cool heist story, with a smooth jazzy score, and lots of local NYC atmosphere. Ed Begley plays Burke, a cop gone bad, looking to score a big one so he can live on Easy Street after getting out of the pen. He’s staked out an upstate bank in New York that looks like an easy target. Belafonte is Ingram, a nightclub musician with a bad gambling habit and a big, big debt to a polite but violent loan shark. One of the man’s thugs is an openly gay guy who flirts with Ingram. As one of the only club women who’s not trying to make time with him says, “That little boy is in big trouble!”
Rounding out the gang of robbers is Robert Ryan as Slater, a WWII veteran who fears getting old and irrelevant. Shelly Winters stuck by him while he was in stir for killing a man in a rage, but he can’t stomach living on her wages; it makes him feel like a little boy. Meanwhile, Gloria Grahame plays the weirdo downstairs who just wants to feel her skin crawl as Slater tells her “how he felt when he did it.” Slater obliges, and makes her feel a whole lot more…
Slater is an out-and-out racist, and Burke has to hold him in line to keep the heist on track. His bigoted comments are pretty raw for a 1959 film, and his sarcastic filth keeps the tension high. When they are setting up the job in the small Hudson Valley town of Melton, NY, Ingram has the bad luck to be standing at the corner when there is a car accident. A cop stops him and asks if he saw anything. Later, the three men, all nervous, discuss their plan, and Ingram is afraid the cop might have gotten too good of a look at him. Slater says, “Don’t flatter yourself, Ingram. You’re just another black spot in Melton, even if you do wear $20 shoes.”
In the heat of the job, Slater loses control and refuses to give the getaway car keys to Ingram. Because of this, a cop catches them, and a gunfight ensures. Burke shoots himself after being downed: he won’t endure another stay in the joint.
Slater and Ingram start fighting with each other: of course Ingram blames Slater for the debacle. They race off in the night with the police in pursuit. Ingram chases Slater into an industrial farm with big fuel tanks that is shown in an eerie light that makes it look like a Charles Sheeler realist Precisionist from the 1930s. There are lots of odd zoom shots as the men run around, and scale ladders trying to get a shot at one another. Finally, they face off, and va va va voom! The whole place blows up.
A sardonic conclusion makes the racial equality point again when the clean up workers examine the charred corpses and remark that you can’t tell one from another.