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 later film 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 the Troubles.
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.
“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).
13 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. 2 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. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
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 10 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, quoting John 8:7, he leads the congregation in singing “Go Down, Moses.”
7 When therefore they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to them: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
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.