I recently wrote a review for Take Shelter (which I’ll post here shortly). In it I talked, only briefly, about dream sequences. Like voiceover and other screenwriting devices, dream sequences are often thought of as cheap – as a way to pull drama where no drama really exists. I buy into this sometimes (I don’t with Take Shelter). I’m certainly no nay-sayer of dream/fantasy sequences in films – I (sort of) included one in Second-Story Man.
Carol Reed’s 1947 film, Odd Man Out, has it’s share of these moments. Reed is a hell of a director: The Third Man, Night Train to Munich, The Fallen Idol…all are great. Odd Man Out, made just prior to The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, is the least of these four, but it’s still a fantastic picture.
James Mason plays Johnny McQueen – an IRA outlaw who is on the run from a city-wide dragnet after shooting and killing a security guard in a botched robbery. As Johnny stumbles through the city he encounters various people, each reacting differently to him based on their own set of politics or greed.
The film is perhaps a bit overlong, but that’s it’s only major flaw. Mason is, as always, quite good, and the photography – especially a chase sequence with two minor characters – presupposes the gorgeous underground scenes in The Third Man.
Dream sequences. After Johnny is initially shot he finds refuge in a small shack on the outskirts of the city. Huddled over, bleeding profusely, Johnny begins to hallucinate. He looks up to the door of the shack and is suddenly looking through cell bars. A jailer approaches and talks to him. Johnny even responds. This is all shot by Reed in a rather realistic manner – shot-reverse-shot all in the same space. The only indication of a dream (outside of the suddenly appearing bars and character) is a slight change in music.
The question is: are dream and fantasy sequences cheap? In this case, as Johnny recalls his prison-past while in a nightmarish, sweating-present, would the film be stronger if it began with him in prison and proceeded linearly? Or if his past was exposed solely through dialogue and not in these visuals? Of it was ignored entirely?
Before giving my opinion, a bit more on why these might be considered cheap devices. For one, as I mentioned above, it’s often thought that the drama should be pulled from the moment – from what is actually happening, and not what could happen. In some sense, one can make a dream sequence do anything, therefore the drama isn’t based on a series of events that have logically preceded it. Another reason: dream sequences generally have no rules. That is to say, they have no rules based on the stated reality of the filmic world, but they also have no aesthetic rules. If the composition or aesthetics are suddenly drastically different, if the costuming is suddenly at odds with what’s occurred before, or the sound design suddenly takes a strange turn…it can all be chalked up to the internal psyche of the character, and nothing more.
There are of course, dreams that certainly work. The recurring dream in Brazil for example works because a) it echoes the theme of the film, b) the world surrounding it is perhaps more ridiculous than the dream, and c) it connects directly with the protagonist’s wants and desires. On the other hand, the dreams in the recent film The Double Hour felt cheap to me because a) though they echo the theme of the film they are over-elongated red herrings that implicate people for no other reason than the fact that they exist in said dream space, and b) the real world created is far less interesting than that of the dream.
Odd Man Out sort of falls in between these. On one hand the dreams are thematically relevant: Johnny is in danger of imprisonment again, so he recalls past imprisonment. Further, they connect directly with with protagonist’s worldview. However, they sort of stop the story in order to take place. I learn a small bit more about Johnny, but in order to do so I need to take a break from the narrative. It’s sort of like reading a book of non-fiction, putting a bookmark in the page, picking up another book and reading a bit about that character, and then going back to the original book to continue to read about his/her plight.