**** out of 5
"What do you want with me? Go back to life, and peace."
Despite being a great cinematic masterwork, this is not really traditional noir, but I'll try to loosely draw some connective lines between this film and the hallmarks of the noir standards.
Carol Reed heads this haunting tale as if it's a ghost story. FL Green, with by RC Sheriff, adapts the tale from his book of the same name. Robert Krasker, whose brilliant cinematography shone so effectively in The Thrd Man a couple years later employs similar imagery here; men furtively dashing through darkened corners and stone roads of a cold city, with bombed out sections still un-rebuilt from bombing of WWII. One readily senses similar hands at work in this film as in that later more well-known title. Artfully integrated into the film is William Alwyn's music, a score that recognizes the power of rests and simple melodies to affect the dramatic power of a scene.
James Mason is Johnny McQueen, leader of an unnamed northern Ireland revolutionary Organization, who, in a bungled raid meant to keep the Organization funded, is injured and left behind to fend for himself or die. He must flee, running futilely from the fate that lies continually before him.
In that sense, one could call his "Cause" the Femme Fatale, a thing of beauty and desirable attraction to him, but which ultimately leads him to crime and his own downfall, then leaves him abandoned to die.
Kathleen Ryan then can be seen as the "good girl", the angel of light who tries desperately to save him, rejecting "causes", legal consequences and her sense of religious obligation to help him for love's sake alone,
Denis O'Dea is the police inspector who tracks Mason down with little personal sympathy, stating to the priest, Father Tom, that "In my profession there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That's all."
Despite his prominent billing, Robert Newton is just one of the last in a series of colorful but heartbreaking and sometimes appalling encounters McQueen faces on his death march to midnight. Interestingly, the film does not take sides in the political conflict, but paints each character sympathetically, even those that ordinarily would be considered repellant. Each has their reasons for failing to truly help Mason in his need, or for wanting to use him to their own ends. The message is made all the more potent by this - all of us are human and thus valuable, and understanding between us is more important than political opinions or causes. Being human and being humane is more important than being "right."
The story is oft compared to John Ford's similarly structured The Informer, which also takes place in a time of Irish revolution. The key difference is that in that film, the central character is essentially running from himself, while here, McQueen is systematically rejected by the world as he runs from fate.
After he awakens in his bomb-shelter hiding place following the initial hold-up, McQueen becomes a watcher among the shadows, like a ghost already dead, witness to children at play and lovers trysts, watching life as he once may have known it, but no longer playing a part.
He soon is force out into the streets again, stumbling into and being rejected from one place of hiding after another. It seems the city who he has fought for wants nothing to do with him, now that he is no longer of use to them; a corpse with no place to rest.
"Did I kill him? Did I kill that fella?" He pleads, but the characters he speaks to seemingly don't hear him, like Scrooge begging with the shadows of his own past.
At one point a cabman who discovered him hiding in his carriage, discreetly discards McQueen in a bathtub that rests among unused gravestones and statues of angels. The imagery brings to mind Horatio's elegy to the fallen Hamlet: "Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" McQueen still lives, but he is dead to the world.
Kathleen Ryan's character has arranged a boat to carry him to safety if she can find him and bring him there by midnight, but has a more desperate plan if that arrangement fails; a plan that Father Tom is horrified by, but which, as in all the darkest of noirs, ultimately ends up as the only way out.
In the film's final moments, Father Tom is solemnly present as policemen cover the bodies of the fallen lovers with their coats. One can almost see in Father Tom's eyes the echo of Horatio's refrain, "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." We hear the boat whistle sounding. The midnight bells chime and "the end" title rolls. Fate's relentless hunt is ended. They've escaped at last.