A pair of 1940s classics from Criterion

SDG Original source: Crux

New this week from the Criterion Collection are the Blu-ray debuts of a pair of classic films from the 1940s — each arguably its director’s masterpiece, and one of two films for which the director is best known.

The earlier film is Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one of comic genius Preston Sturges’ two great comedies of that year, the other being The Lady Eve. The latter is Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which stands alongside The Third Man (1949) as Reed’s best-known and best-regarded work.

In most respects, the two films couldn’t be more different. Sullivan’s Travels is a Hollywood screwball comedy with elements of melodrama and pathos; Odd Man Out is a British film noir set in Northern Ireland during a period of unspecified conflict.

Yet both films are remembered today in part for their social significance — though both directors made some effort to disclaim any such intention for their film.

Another glancing point of contact: both films include characters who quote scripture in defense of universal human solidarity.

Odd Man Out opens with an explicit caveat that the story “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. In keeping with that cautious disclaimer, neither the coastal urban setting (obviously Belfast, where exterior shots were filmed) nor the “illegal organisation” (obviously the IRA) are ever explicitly named. Even so, the film was groundbreaking for bringing the postwar upheaval in Northern Ireland to British screens.

As for Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges said afterward that the film was intended as a vindication of pure escapism against the social aspirations of Hollywood filmmakers whom Sturges felt were “getting a little too deep-dish”. Yet the film ventures at times into precisely the sort of socially conscious melodrama Sturges claimed to be critiquing, and is valued today in part precisely for its portrait of Depression-era hardship, notably in a seven-minute sequence shot in the style of a silent-era “social issue” melodrama and in a third-act dramatization of the harsh conditions of chain-gang imprisonment. 

Another glancing point of contact: both films include characters who quote scripture in defense of universal human solidarity.

In Odd Man Out, this is the protagonist, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a revolutionary leader whose recent imprisonment has changed his thinking on violence and inclined him toward more diplomatic means. In spite of this, he goes through with a payroll robbery that goes awry, leaving Johnny wounded and wanted for murder, wandering the city seeking to evade a tightening police dragnet.

At times the gritty urban visuals dissolve into surreal, hallucinatory sequences dramatizing Johnny’s deteriorating physical condition and growing spiritual enlightenment. In the last of these, believing that he sees a kindly priest (W. G. Fay) who is searching for him, Johnny muses, “We’ve always drowned your voice with our shouting, haven’t we, Father? We never really listened to you. We repeated the words without thinking what they meant…” Then, looming tall in a dramatically framed worm’s-eye shot, James proceeds to passionately quote from 1 Corinthians 13 (in an sloppily Anglocentric touch, from the Authorized Version rather than the Douay-Rheims):

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things ₀ Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

In Sullivan’s Travels, perhaps reflecting the director’s preference to “leave preaching to the preachers,” Sturges includes an actual preacher, a baritone-voiced black clergyman (Jess Lee Brooks) who appears in a similarly revelatory third-act scene.

Sullivan’s Travels centers on an idealistic young director named John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) who wants to make socially important films, but whose producers want him to keep making crowd-pleasing comedies. The producers’ best argument backfires when Sullivan, much struck by the insight that his privileged life hasn’t equipped him to address hardship authentically, decides to hit the road with ten cents in his pocket in an effort to experience hardship firsthand.

Accompanied by Veronica Lake as an aspiring starlet, Sullivan discovers that casting off the mantle of privilege is harder than he expected. Only when he loses control of the situation and finds himself arrested and convicted of a crime does he really begin to realize what trouble is.

With a number of fellow convicts, Sullivan is permitted to visit a rural Negro church where movies are shown to congregants and prisoners alike. This respectful sequence depicts the preacher instructing his flock on how to treat their guests (“neighbors less fortunate than ourselves”): “neither by word, nor by action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor to draw away from or act high-toned. For we is all equal in the sight of God.”

Then, citing John 8:7 (“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”) and alluding to Isaiah 35 (“The lame shall leap, the blind shall see, and glory in the coming of the Lord!”), he leads the congregation in singing “Go Down, Moses.”

Bonus features for both Criterion editions are typically generous.

Sullivan’s Travels comes with the excellent, Emmy-winning 76-minute PBS documentary “Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer” (1990), a new 17-minute video essay on the film (“Ants in Your Plants of 1941”) featuring Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, and a dense but often interesting commentary track from 2001 by filmmakers Noah Baumbach, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Kenneth Bowser.

Odd Man Out extras include an illuminating interview with film scholar John Hill on the film’s political importance, commentary by music scholar Jeff Smith on the score and a new 15-minute documentary on the film