Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

In director Robert Wise's engrossing, landmark, noirish crime melodrama - it was the first film noir with a black protagonist (Harry Belafonte, who also produced the film through his own independent company HarBel). The film's character-driven story, shot on location in NYC, was based upon the 1957 novel by William P. McGivern, and was scripted by blacklisted black author-writer Abraham Polonsky (alias John O. Killens) and Nelson Gidding. The jazzy and moody musical score was by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Infra-red film was used in some of the sequences, presenting an unusual and distorted look with heightened contrasts and washed-out whites (including softening the skin color of the many African-American characters), including during the opening title credits. Although the late 1950s B-film was dated by its hipster dialogue, it did not censor the use of authentic racial epithets. The obviously cautionary and pessimistic themes, foremost in the fifties' era of racial unrest and uncertainty, included volatile bigotry, greed and the weak human impulse toward fatalism self-destruction.

Three of the film's taglines for the caper were:

  • These Aren't Men - They're two sticks of dynamite!
  • By All Odds... It Stands Big And Breathless At The Top Of The List!
  • This is a story that walks with a gun in its hand...and slams with a fist full of fury!

In the heist film's plot set in NYC, three desperate men were teamed up to commit a bank robbery. In the end, they were ultimately stymied by racial tensions and prejudice; one of the criminal members, a white, unstable bigoted ex-con, faced off against the troubled black member of the gang in a deadly, fiery shootout in a fuel storage facility, reminiscent of the conclusion of Raoul Walsh's classic film noir White Heat (1949). The caper film was also influenced by John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

Wise's black and white film was deliberately shot to appear like a European film, and French cinematographer Joseph C. Brun was hired for that purpose. It resembled director Jules Dassin's similar French heist film Rififi (1955), and paid homage to French director Jean-Pierre Melville's earlier classic Bob le Flambeur (1956) (aka Bob the Gambler). However, Melville claimed he borrowed elements of Wise's film as a formative influence for his subsequent gangster films in the next decade, including Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) (aka The Red Circle), and Un Flic (1972) (aka A Cop).

  • in the abstract, expressionistic title credits, the dizzying images moved from right to left
  • the opening image in the film was of rippling water flooding a New York City street gutter, with trash blowing in the wind
  • the first scene presented a condensed character study of a bitter ex-con who grew up on an Oklahoma farm - bigoted, tough-guy loser-drifter Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) was walking down a Riverside Drive sidewalk one afternoon on his way to a meeting; he playfully picked up a young black girl who was pretending to fly with her arms out, and with a racist attitude, he referred to her with a detested name: "Ya little pickaninny. You're gonna kill yourself flyin' like that. Yes you are"; inside the lobby of the nearby Hotel Juno at 2:35 pm, he also had harsh words for the distracted, facially-blemished hotel desk clerk (Ed Preble)
  • in Room # 607 of the hotel, Slater met with disgraced ex-cop veteran and ex-con David Burke (Ed Begley) who admitted he had been fired (dishonorably discharged) and served a year for contempt; 30 years earlier, he had refused to cooperate with state crime investigators; the elderly, fallen and crooked ex-cop Burke said he was looking for "someone serious with a head for business" - someone who was also in trouble and in need of quick money
  • Slater had served two stretches, for assault with a deadly weapon and for manslaughter; the reluctant Slater was about to pass on the offer but paused and returned - intrigued when Burke proposed giving him $50,000 in small bills for pulling off a robbery: ("Just walk into a bank and take it...It's a one-time job, one roll of the dice and we're through forever")
  • as Slater walked out of the front of the hotel, Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) (who had driven up and parked in a 1957 Austin Healey sports car) passed him and also entered; the handsome, black nightclub entertainer, who was horse-racing gambling-addicted and owed $7,500 dollars to strong-armed Italian mobster Bacco (Will Kuluva), was also given the same "pitch" by Burke, to pay off his debts; however, Ingram initially declined the "sure thing" offer: "I'll go down the drain on my own," but then seemed persuaded: ("I'm prayin' for a miracle") when he heard the "easy job" would result in $50,000 - $75,000 dollars, all in small bills if successful; Johnny ultimately turned down Burke before leaving: "That's a firing squad. It's for junkies and joy boys"; Burke explained that he was also trapped and had no choice but to acquire the money "to get out of this trap - they've kicked my head in. What can I do?"
  • the troubled and debt-ridden Johnny Ingram was heavily burdened by both a shark-mobster's interest-on-debt payments and his court-ordered alimony payments to his middle-class ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) who lived uptown with their daughter Eadie (Lois Thorne)
  • Burke visited with the heavy-accented Bacco feeding pigeons in a park, protected by his two thugs: depraved homosexual Coco (Richard Bright) and strong-arm Moriarty (Lew Gallo); Burke was offered to join Bacco's operation, but Burke refused: "You're outside the law"; Burke mentioned how he knew that Ingram was heavily in debt to him; it was later implied that off-screen, Burke manipulatively convinced Bacco to put increased pressure on Ingram so that he would have to agree to participate in his planned heist
  • Slater lived in a two-room apartment with girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters); he told her at 7:30 am as Burke was picking him up: "I'm off to make my fortune"; he falsely claimed to her that he was checking out a possible "concession" with Burke; Lorry urged him to take additional cash from her purse, revealing that he was financially-dependent upon her and felt humiliated and trapped like a "kept" man; she was interested in having him find decent employment and leave behind his criminal past; he urgently hugged her and told her that he was desperate for any possible deal: "There is a hurry. I have to make it, Lorry, and I have to make it now...I have to make it on my own, Lorry, because of you, and I have to make it any way I can...Ain't gonna junk me like an old car!"
  • Burke and Slater drove about 100 miles north up the Hudson River Valley to the small town of Melton, NY (established in 1836), to case the town's environs and its First National Bank; behind venetian blinds in an across-the-street corner room, the two watched as a "colored waiter from the Drug Store" walked down two sidewalks to deliver a sandwich and coffee order to the side door of the bank for a half-dozen working staff that closed the books and remained until 7:00 pm; Burke explained that the bank was open on Thursday evenings until 6:00 pm, when it was "loaded with payroll cash and deposits from the stores" for Friday's pay-day - close to $200,000 dollars "in untraceable cash"; at the side door, the aging, about-to-retire guard Joe Foss (William Adams) with glasses and arthritis was the bank's only security: "You could take it with a water pistol"
  • the racist-minded Slater responded to Burke at the window, with the shadows of the blinds on his face, that there was only one thing wrong with the plan: "You didn't say nothin about the third man bein' a n----r!"; Slater refused to be partnered with a black man
  • at a nightclub, Johnny entertained patrons by singing: "My Baby's Not Around" and playing a xylophone; Bacco's "pretty boy" moog Coco seductively approached Ingram with a hip offer: "Hi baby, what's shakin'? Bacco wants to buy you a drink, and I wanna buy you a shiny new car"; after his number, Ingram spoke to Kitty (Carmen De Lavallade), his current girlfriend who felt miffed by his recent disappearance and suggested that he return her key; when he kissed her, she reacted coldly: "That's good. But it was better when you wanted it"
  • in a private back room, Johnny met up with two club owners Garry (Paul Hoffman) and Ed; they were soon interrupted by Bacco with his two thugs; Ingram admitted he didn't have the money to pay off his growing debt of $7,500 due to continuing horse-racing losses: ("I've been losin' steadily for a month"); Bacco demanded total repayment ("all of it") by the next evening; Ed declined to offer Johnny a pay advance to ease his predicament due to his gambling habit; Ingram told Bacco he couldn't meet the mobster's demands, and threatened the thugs with a borrowed small gun in his pocket; Bacco's thugs grabbed Ingram as Bacco threatened to hurt the singer's ex-wife and daughter if the debt wasn't covered in 24 hours; Bacco struck Johnny across the face with Ed's string of pearls that he had bought for his daughter: "Tomorrow night at 8, or I kill you and everything you own"
  • Johnny took out his frustrations on a xylophone (treating it like a drum set) while Annie (Mae Barnes) performed "All Men are Evil" on-stage - he ruined her act
  • once the two small-time criminals returned to the city, Burke asked Slater to reconsider, and he responded: "Nothin' to think over. Just the idea of it makes me nervous. I wouldn't trust my own self on a day like this with a colored boy"
  • on his child-visitation day, Johnny entered his ex-wife Ruth's apartment (where she was hosting a PTA meeting), to pick up his daughter Eadie for a visit to Central Park; before leaving, he kissed Ruth - showing that he still loved her; during their day including a merry-go-round ride and rink ice-skating, Johnny confronted two of Bacco's strong-men following him who were there to ensure that he didn't leave town; feeling trapped, Ingram reluctantly called Burke and volunteered for the bank job: ("I'll take out that deal"), but required an advance of $7,500 to pay off Bacco; Burke called Bacco to assuredly pledge to him that Ingram would be paying up: ("I'll give you the dough in two weeks"); at a Central Park zoo payphone, Ingram called Burke back to try and confirm their arrangement, and off-handedly mentioned he was considering suicide
  • Slater returned to find a written note from Lorry that she would be out for the evening; she added: "I told Helen you'd baby-sit 'til I got back" - the upstairs neighbor Helen (Gloria Grahame) knocked on his door and innocently asked: "Can I flirt with you a little?"; she was hoping that Earl would offer to 'baby-sit' her child while she met with her husband Sam's boss later that evening, but he discouraged her by insultingly shutting the door on her request
  • Slater's physical strength and unstable volatility were displayed when he visited his local bar and became aggravated by a uniformed soldier (Wayne Rogers) trying to impress two others by showing off his training's defensive moves; they accidentally bumped into Earl at the bar and spilled his drink; when Earl spoke harshly at them and insulted the rowdy soldier, the offended guy approached Earl and taunted him to "throw a punch" and called him an "old veteran"; Earl retorted: ("Sonny, you'd better go back and play with the girls"), but then, after being further exasperated by the man's audacity, he painfully punched the soldier in the abdomen, and watched him crumple to the floor
  • once Slater returned home, he was in a depressed mood, accentuated when Lorry told him that she might be promoted into a higher-paying job, and that she wasn't concerned about his long search for legitimate work: ("I don't care how long it takes for you to find the right thing to do...You don't have to be the great big man with me, Earl. I don't care about things like that. There's only one thing I care about, sweetie"); in reference to his virility, he replied: "I know, but what happens when I get old?"; she answered: "You are old now!" and angrily told him: "You can go straight to hell" before leaving; he reacted by phoning Burke to confirm his participation
  • Ingram's domestic situation wasn't much better; when Ruth returned to her place after Johnny's day-visit with Eadie, he found Johnny and Eadie peacefully napping together; after awakening, Johnny kissed Ruth and expressed how he wanted to remain together with her and their daughter - although he knew it was an impossibility: ("Sorry, I was dreaming"); Ruth affirmed how it wouldn't be fair to Eadie for them to get back together, because he had already shown himself to be an 'unfit father' due to his gambling habit: ("A child can't have a father who lives your life...I am trying to make a world fit for Edie to live in. It’s a cinch you’re not gonna do it with a deck of cards and a racing form")
  • as the stereotype of an 'angry black man,' Johnny accused her of foolishly trying to be part of the segregated white world: "But you are, huh? You and your big white brothers. Drink enough tea with them and stay out of the watermelon patch, and maybe our little colored girl'll grow up to be Miss America, is that it?... Why don't you wise up, Ruth? It's their world and we're just living in it....Don't you ever let me catch you teaching Eadie to suck up to those..."
  • upstairs neighbor Helen again reappeared at Earl's door; he apologized for jilting her earlier in the afternoon ("I'm ready to kiss, make up, and say I'm sorry"); while visiting with her, she said that she wanted to listen for her baby's crying; he toasted with drinks ("To a much more affectionate future!"); she became sexually-excited after cautiously asking him about his criminal dark past and crime of manslaughter: "How did it feel when you killed that man?" and heard his multi-part answer: "Do you want me to make your flesh creep?...I enjoyed it. It scared me, but I enjoyed it. I hated that man so, I could have killed him all over again, even though I didn't mean to....He followed me, he insulted me...He dared me, like you are now"; as she turned away, he grabbed the belt from her robe, exposing and flashing her underwear at him; he closed the door, then approached to kiss her, as she promised: "Just this once"; with vengeful anger toward Lorry after their fight, he made love to Helen (off-screen)
  • after 11:00 pm that night, the three co-conspirators met at Burke's place, where he was walking through the set-up for the bank robbery; he explained he had acquired a beat-up 1951 Chevy station wagon with "a hopped-up motor with dual carburation" for the getaway car parked near the bank, with two stolen untraceable license plates; there were also four "police specials" and two shotguns; Ingram remarked: "I thought this was an easy job. Sounds like D-Day"; the deeply-prejudiced Earl began to show his antagonism and dislike for the black Ingram, first by ignoring him, and then by insultingly calling him "boy" and describing his role: "All you have to do is carry the sandwiches, in a white monkey jacket and give 'em a big smile and say 'yes, sir.' You don't have to worry and you don't have to think. We'll take care of ya"
  • Burke interceded to prevent civil in-fighting between them by calling all of them equals: "Don't beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater! We're all in this together, each man equal. And we're taking care of each other. It's one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever...You got it?"; Slater agreed that it would be his last job and both were going for broke - he responded: "Well, I'm with you, Dave. Like you say, it's just one role of the dice, doesn't matter what color they are. So's they come up seven"
  • after their meeting together, Earl returned to his apartment and found Lorry upset; after admitting he often spoiled things, the long-suffering Lorry also realized that he had to earn his own money: "It has to be your own, or we just can't last. And you're right. That's the way it is"; she begged for him to never leave her; Slater felt he had one final chance to 'make it': "I'm gettin' too old to take things slow. If I don't make it now, I never will. And I mean with you too, now or never"; he confessed his one indelible flaw in life was his temper - and that the only time that things ever came easy to him was during enjoyable fits of anger
  • the day of the heist, the three criminals traveled separately to Melton - Johnny (by bus), Earl (by the station wagon, capable of 110 mph), and Burke dressed as a hunter (in his 1955 Plymouth Belvedere, parked outside of town); in town to pick up Ingram from his bus trip, Burke and Earl in the station wagon watched tensely as Johnny witnessed a minor fender-bender accident and was asked by a street cop to take down his witness statement; shortly later, when they met up as a threesome, Earl continued to annoy Ingram with insults in their personal feud: ("You're just another black spot on Main Street"), and Ingram quipped back: "Some day I'm gonna snap off your poison head!"; Burke was confident that Slater would get the job done: "He's a hard-nose, but he's dependable in the clutch. It's gonna work!"
  • the three split up and awaited nightfall (6:00 pm) by killing time at the riverside; Ingram was reminded of his damaged family life after viewing a battered doll floating among debris in the water; and Slater aimed at a rabbit but deliberately missed it; Burke stopped to read a prophetic Biblical inscription (Ecclesiastes 9:10) on a hilltop statue: "Whatsoever Thy Hand Findeth to Do, Do It With Thy Might" [Note: The remainder of the Bible verse predicted death: "...for in the realm of the dead, where you are going..."]
  • Slater picked up Ingram in the station wagon and the two parked by the bank's side door, while Burke stood around the corner outside the Eagle Drug Store down the street from the front of the bank; the black delivery guy Charlie from the drug store exited with the food order box, but before Burke was able to upset him, other young boys pantomiming playing with guns collided with him and the order was dumped onto the ground; he had to go back into the drug store to refill the order
  • Johnny (with a waiter's white hat and uniform) was signaled by Slater to walk to the bank's side door with the fake food order in two large boxes; the three robbers were able to gain entry when the guard opened the door at about 6:10 pm; after donning masks inside, Ingram and Burked entered the bank vault area and began to put wads of stolen cash into bags, while Slater held several employees at gunpoint; when Charlie from the drug store arrived at the side with the second replacement food order and banged on the door, Slater grabbed him, pulled him inside the bank and knocked him out; instead of the original plan to have Johnny drive the getaway car parked by the side door, Slater gave Burke the car keys (he distrusted Johnny to drive)
The Failed Caper

Heist (l to r): Slater, Burke, Ingram Stuffing Bags With Wads of Cash

The Three Masked Robbers in the Bank - The Fatal Key Switch

Burke Shot by the Side Door - He Fell to His Knees, Lethally Wounded

The Escape Car's Keys - Just Beyond Slater's and Johnny's Reach

Burke's Last Words: "Run, Johnny, I'm sorry"

Slater and Ingram - Cornered and Trapped
  • as Burke (with the car keys) was seen exiting the side door of the bank with a heavy bag of cash, two cops in a squad car thought: "Hey! That's funny!" Burke was accosted by one of the cops who called out: "Hold it, Mister. Yo there, the hunter!"; Burke slowly turned and walked back, but then the burglar alarm began to ring, and Slater began shooting at the cop from the side door; caught in the open, Burke also began firing back, but was shot and fell to his knees; due to the unplanned key switch, Slater and Ingram were stranded in an alleyway and unable to flee in the car parked on the side street near them; Slater fired back with a shotgun he had retrieved from the vehicle, but they were outnumbered and cornered
  • the injured Burke (with multiple bullet wounds) lying on the sidewalk tried to pass the car keys to his partners, but failed; he called out: "Run, Johnny, I'm sorry," and then suicidally shot himself in the head to avoid being captured; Slater remarked: "Whaddya know? He sure ain't gonna talk now"
  • after Ingram raged at Slater for not trusting him and getting them into a deadly bind, the two fled to a nearby oil refinery (with large holding tanks for fuel), as they began firing at each other during a vicious, volatile and confrontational firefight between them
The Two Atop Massive Fuel Tanks in an Oil Refinery - Aiming Their Guns At Each Other
  • neither of them survived when the refinery exploded in flames with massive fireballs; the next day when the authorities and medical personnel surveyed the ruins of the devastating blast, they viewed two burned-to-a-crisp bodies and ironically observed how there were no racial differences between the unrecognizable corpses on stretchers; one asked: "Which is which?" and another replied: "Take your pick"; a damaged sign presented the film's moral lesson: "STOP DEAD END" - it was a cautionary warning about how racial hatred and animosity must stop or it would lead to death; the last image of a dirty puddle of water book-ended the film's opening image of waste water in a city gutter

Earl Slater to Black Girl on Sidewalk: "You little pickaninny"

Earl Slater (Robert Ryan)

Ex-Con and Ex-Cop David Burke (Ed Begley)

Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) Offered the Same "Pitch" by Burke

Italian Mobster Bacco (Will Kuluva)

Slater's Live-in Girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters)

Slater Financially Dependent Upon Lorry

In Melton, NY, Slater to Burke: "You didn't say nothin about the third man bein' a n----r!"

Johnny Ingram Kissing Girlfriend Kitty (Carmen De Lavallade) Who Reacted: "That's good. But it was better when you wanted it"

Ingram Forcibly Threatened by Bacco To Pay Off His Gambling Debts

Ingram's Ex-Wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton)

Johnny's Anger At Ruth For Trying To Fit Into the White World

The Start of Slater's Involvement in an Affair with Femme Fatale Upstairs Neighbor Helen (Gloria Grahame)

Helen's Serious Question to Slater: "How did it feel when you killed that man?"

"He dared me, like you are now"

Helen Flashing Herself at Slater

Helen: "Just this once"

Drug Store Order Spilled Onto the Ground

Ingram Disguised as Drug Store Delivery Man with Food Order at the Bank's Side Door

Slater Ready to Bust Into the Bank's Side Door

Burke Ready to Barge Into Bank with The Other Two Robbers

The Ending: Damaged Sign: "STOP DEAD END"


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