"Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959) is an excellent film. It's a gorgeous looking film, beautifully and carefully photographed. In scene after scene and shot after shot, the visuals have been meticulously thought out and presented to us so. They powerfully create moods and engage feelings while being inseparable from furthering the story and its characters. Deep focus photography draws us in to the various worlds being shown -- a smoky nightclub, a cramped apartment with relics of the past on the walls, Central Park, an isolated valley town ringed by mountains in the distance, and an imposing bank with a back door opening to dreams of instant wealth for three losers combining to score a big win.
The screenplay takes its time to explain how three disparate characters form an unlikely trio that holds up a bank in a Hudson River town north of New York City. Robert Ryan is a standout playing a two-time loser and insecure racist from Oklahoma who doesn't want to be kept by Shelley Winters. Ms. Winters when well-directed can deliver an excellent, restrained and effective performance (as in "Lolita" and "Alfie") and that is the case here. Ryan can say more with a grimace and a squint than most actors can say with pages of dialog. His anger is repressed and barely controlled. Making a brief appearance, Gloria Grahame is a loose neighbor attracted to Ryan. Ed Begley is a fine character actor who here brings to life a disillusioned ex-cop whose only companions are his German shepherd dog and a dream of a big and easy bank heist. He manipulates Harry Belafonte into participating in the robbery by using Belafonte's gambling debts to Will Kuluva. Belafonte is essential to the plan in order to impersonate another black man, but the conflict between Ryan and Belafonte sparks tension that threatens the operation.
John Lewis wrote the jazz score played by the Modern Jazz Quartet. This was a time when the jazz vocabulary had matured after the introduction of be-bop in the forties. Jazz could increasingly compete with classical cues in emotional and expressive terms, especially in the hands of such top artists as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and John Lewis. This helps to explain its use in "Elevator to the Gallows" (1958) and "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), or even earlier by composer Elmer Bernstein in "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955) or the score to "The Big Combo" (1955) by David Raksin. The presence of jazz helps to bring noir out of its melodramatic roots. Its sometimes plaintive and bluesy quality evokes a circumscribed and fatalistic world that combines a down-to-earth recognition of man's plights with a kind of resignation that remains hopeful and not at the limit of despair.