Harry Belafonte was an athletic, clean-cut man, and he was extraordinarily handsome, but he wasn’t earthy or possessed of the physicality of Sidney Poitier, his closest contemporary. Yet within a short time he achieved national popularity. Like Poitier, his stardom was genuine. He answered a need. He appealed to certain moviegoers who liked the image of American underdogs who had a code of honor, came out on top and even got the girl in the end.
By the mid-1950s, the color barrier in Hollywood was crumbling. Black actors like Poitier were being cast as leading men. Films were changing as well. Black heroes had epic confrontations with White men in allegorical settings of film noir, science-fiction and musicals. Black actors were at the center of the stories, not just ciphers on the periphery. The Black stereotypes were seen as offensive and they gave way to more fully developed Black characters.
“Carmen Jones” (1954), a lavish Technicolor musical adaptation of the Bizet opera “Carmen,” has numerous great moments thanks to standout performances from Belafonte and the legendary Dorothy Dandridge. Directed by Otto Preminger, who was not afraid of exploring the possibilities and challenges of genre filmmaking, got the most out of Dandridge and especially Belafonte.
The movie is a landmark because of its deep-toned color photography, change of setting to the southern United States during World War II and liberal (at the time) message of racial equality. Yet it was not the first all-Black movie. The films “Hallelujah!,” “The Green Pastures,” “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” preceded it. But thanks to Preminger’s dynamic liberal vision, it is easily the most ambitious, risk-taking attempt of its kind in the 1950s.
By the time he starred in Robert Wise’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” filmed in Hudson and released in 1959, it was clear that singer-actor Belafonte was making it his mission to transgress racist norms in film and music.
When he was cast as Johnny Ingram, the third axis of a bank-robbing trio in the noir thriller “Odds against Tomorrow,” Hudson gained fame in the movie world and would be inextricably associated with New York City, a status the city has retained to this day. Also in 1959, Belafonte was part of another mismatched triumvirate in “The World, the Flesh and the Devil.” In this science-fiction film, he portrayed Ralph Burton, who finds that the world has been destroyed. The movie is about Burton’s discovery that he is not alone. A man and a woman — both White — also survived.
On one level, “Odds Against Tomorrow,” about three men very different in personality and temperament who form a partnership to rob a bank in upstate New York (beautifully portrayed by Hudson as a shadow-filled, most sinister city) is a taut heist noir. On another, it is an allegory about racism, greed and self-destruction.
The script, based on a novel by William P. McGivern, offers a theme of understanding and tolerance amid a thick atmosphere of obsession and, by the climax, rage and madness. The genre is the crime thriller, a framework built for maximum impact.
Johnny Ingram is similar to Burton — a working-class Everyman who is just trying to hold on. “Tomorrow” is about what happens when Johnny falls in with Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a vicious Southern-born racist, and Dave Burke (Ed Begley), the man with the plan to rob a bank in upstate New York and disappear back to New York with the loot before the police catch up.
Under Robert Wise’s direction, Belafonte’s performance is notable for its lack of pretension, its color-blindness and hatred for Earle he can barely repress. Johnny is a husband driven to crime by frustration over his inability to provide for his new wife. Earle perceives Johnny as window dressing for the gang, but Johnny is crafty and talented. Unlike Earle, Johnny exerts control over his emotions. Johnny, not Dave, is the intelligence of the gang, and he won’t allow Earle to wreck the robbery scheme with his bigotry. Johnny might be a thief, but he’s an honorable one.
His acting in “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” directed by Ranald MacDougall, begins with a solo tour de force in which Ralph, a mining inspector, is trapped by a cave-in in Pennsylvania. Stranded and with no hope of contact anyone on the surface, he is forced to wait for help and rely on his patience when diggers begin trying to save him. In one remarkable sequence, Ralph talks and sings to himself to calm his terror. He realizes that the digging has stopped and all communication with the outside world is futile. He finds a means to escape the cave and emerges, filthy but unhurt to discover that the world’s population has disappeared and that he might be the last man on Earth. One of MacDougall’s most haunting and shocking sequences is where Ralph is walks down a street in the heart of an empty New York City as the panic and fear he experienced in the collapsed mine is magnified by the use of the wide screen and stark black-and-white.
Then he encounters two survivors, Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) and Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer). In this trio, Benson is the racist and Belafonte, despite his mistrust of Benson, embodies social conscience. Ralph is a disciplined man who understands that peace is the only way to rebuild the world. The central conflict arises when the three must decide who will form a nuclear family and who will be the odd man out. Unlike “Tomorrow,” which ends is violence and death, “World” concludes with hope for life as the three survivors resolve to work together in harmony.
The most moving element of these suspenseful and frightening films is that behind the cruelty and ugliness is not cynicism, but Belafonte’s quietly powerful but unobtrusive compassion for the criminals in “Tomorrow” and the survivors of “World.” His truth-seeking impulsiveness can emerge victorious over the grotesque, psychotic racism of Earle Slater or the gratuitous and useless prejudices of Benson Thacker. Hudson, which today has features recognizable to anyone who sees “Odds Against Tomorrow” made 64 years ago, was temporarily home to a man who is more about liberation than repression.