*. I like James Mason. Is there anyone who doesn’t? He’s dreamy. But what is he doing in this film? Is Johnny MacQueen a character, a plot device, or just “a superb camera subject” (Pauline Kael)?
*. Most of the time he’s a silent and barely ambulatory piece of luggage, shuffling or being dragged around his various stations of the cross. Lukey must be painting him as Christ the Man of Sorrows, right?
*. Two problems. First, there’s no suspense since Johnny is obviously doomed for being on the wrong side of the law (so that there’s no chance he’s going to be allowed to escape punishment, however remorseful he may feel for killing the guard). Worse, there’s no connection between Johnny and Kathleen, so their liebestod at the end doesn’t resonate in the slightest. I think Lukey was more emotionally invested in Johnny, albeit less concerned for his personal welfare.
*. Perhaps that’s being too harsh. I’ll walk it back a bit. Kathleen Ryan is very good here, and it may be that for the character she plays still waters run deep. She is, after all, living in a sort of police state. As a person of interest in matters relating to the Organization, she has cultivated a face that gives nothing away (as has her nemesis the Inspector). So I’m prepared to take it on faith that she has a passionate attachment to Johnny, however misconceived.
*. But how does Johnny feel about her? He seems to treat her almost as a kind of kid sister, the one who is always tagging along wanting to be part of the gang. The ending has a sting in it then, as Kathleen is clearly acting out her own solo romantic fantasy. Which, I suppose, is no different than the way everyone else is trying to use Johnny for their own purposes.
*. It’s set in Belfast, but the city is never named. I wonder why not. Perhaps Reed wanted to “universalize” the story. But we begin with an aerial shot of Belfast, and the Albert Memorial Clock Tower is used as a key landmark throughout so it’s not like they were trying to disguise where they were or present a truly generic city. Nobody in the audience could have been under any illusions about the location. So why be coy?
*. I’m also a bit surprised that there’s no explanation (at least that I recall) given for Johnny’s dizziness before the heist. I believe he’s supposed to have a fever or something, but they could have made that clearer (shown him taking pills, sweating excessively, etc.). Instead we’re left wondering what’s wrong with him.
*. Robert Newton as Lukey got top billing after Mason, and has been routinely abused by critics (Pauline Kael: “a badly misconceived performance in a badly misconceived role”). Perhaps it’s the passage of time, but I enjoy the part. Lukey fits in with the structure of the story becoming progressively more surreal, rather as New York does in Scorsese’s After Hours. And how could Lukey not be a nut living in such a fantastic derelict mansion (which must have been a model for the apartment building in Blade Runner). Lukey belongs in a city like this, or more so than Johnny anyway.
*. The movie is often noted for its “objectivity” or qualified sympathy for the Organization (that is, the I.R.A.). I think this is putting it mildly. Reed really turns Green’s novel on its head. The book was set during the war and the I.R.A. are suspect because they might be collaborating with the Nazis. Here, however, it’s the authorities who are the Nazis, with Denis O’Dea (looking as tall as the Albert Tower), looming over everyone in his long trenchcoat and threatening them with his staff of office (which he uses in a quite demeaning and suggestive way on Kathleen). This is darker even than Hollywood noir, where the cops are at least accorded some respect.
*. Meanwhile, the politics are entirely erased. It’s not just that political issues are never discussed, it’s even left unclear who is with the Organization and who isn’t. We can understand the different motivations of the people whose paths Johnny crosses, but not what side they’re on.
*. The photography is pure noir, taken to another level. I’m thinking in particular of the large shadows that are so conspicuous in the night streets, seeming to climb the walls like carnivorous vines. Who is it who kills Johnny’s crew when they leave the brothel? The cops? No! They’re gunned down by a gang of shadows (another sign that the police aren’t getting a fair shake). And at the end the constabulary will come at Johnny and Kathleen out of a veil of falling snow, set in silhouette against the headlights of their patrol cars. More faceless, sinister shapes.
*. We aren’t experiencing Johnny’s hallucinations in either of these scenes, but it doesn’t matter because Belfast is in the process of becoming a surreal place full of walking shadows. Proyas’s Dark City perhaps?
*. The shadow play also emphasizes the vagueness of the proceedings. The religious angle doesn’t work on any specific level, and I’m not sure in the end what significance Johnny’s epiphany has. Since the political situation is entirely elided, Johnny’s Catholicism doesn’t have any bearing on what’s happening either. Given the unnamed city and all the rest of it, one starts to wonder why Reed even bothered with the source material.
*. In the final analysis I think it’s a movie that has to be seen as a parable or allegory. Johnny can be interpreted as a Christ figure, or the wounded traveller who fails to find a good Samaritan, but ultimately he’s just the outsider, successively ejected from the getaway car, the cab, the house the two ex-nurses live in, and the bar. If Reed has a political point to make it’s here, in his depiction of the native of the place who is nowhere at home, an exile in his own country. But that country could be anywhere, at any time.