Friday, March 28, 2008

The Jazz Score: Odds Against Tomorrow

Two of director Robert Wise’s great “issue” movies feature great jazz soundtracks and will be screened during MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective. The first is I Want to Live!, his capital punishment drama. The second is Odds Against Tomorrow, a grimly naturalistic film noir indictment of racism.

Ed Begley is Dave Burke, an ex-cop looking to make a quick score. To take down a sleepy upstate bank, he hires Earl Slater, a racist ex-con with anger management issues and Johnny Ingram, an African-American jazz musician deep in debt to the mob. Conflict will be unavoidable.

Robert Ryan plays Slater—exactly the kind of role he specialized in—a man bitter at a world he thinks owes him a living. Unable to hold a job, Slater’s girlfriend, played somewhat over the top by Shelley Winters, tries to control him through her purse strings, which only increases his resentment. Harry Belafonte is the suave, sophisticated Ingram, whose weakness for horses threatens the security of his estranged family. Due to their dire economic circumstances, they both agree to Burke’s caper. However, the perfectly planned score is needlessly undone by Slater’s fatal racism in a brilliantly realized climax.

Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.

The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”

Indeed, Odds paints a desperately grim picture of human nature. In a telling early scene, Ingram off-handedly mentions he has another bet down on a race because: “you can’t lose forever.” Burke responds: “you’d be surprised.” There are certainly no winners in Odds. Burke turns to crime having been punished for his honesty while on the force. Ingram is a loving father, but hopelessly weak. Slater is irredeemably racist and violent. Together they hurtle towards an inevitable end deftly directed by Wise. It screens at MoMA April 20th and 30th, along with I Want to Live!