A masterful narrative sequence in Odds Against Tomorrow captures the film’s thesis on race; the film sharply cuts from Earle’s dark statement—“you didn’t say nothing about the third man being a n*****”—to Johnny singing in a bar. Johnny’s words are critical here, he sings “what’s the matter pretty baby? Tell me what your daddy’s done. Won’t you tell me pretty momma, what your daddy’s done?”
This scene is shortly followed by Johnny’s face off with his boss in a private office in the bar. The boss casually mentions his eldest daughter’s 16th birthday, showing off the shiny white pearls he plans to gift her. Odds Against Tomorrow is undulated with references to children—both visual and metaphorical like in this scene. We see Earle pass a crowd of children as he enters Burke’s building in the very first scene, a similar crowd of kids gathers outside the drug store directly before the robbery, and many characters have children themselves.
Johnny’s song—that asks what your daddy’s done—can be seen from a new light in combination with these prolific references to children. Especially when the bar scenes ends with Johnny’s drunken tantrum—he interrupts the Black female’s song and bangs about on his xylophone—reminding the viewer of a young child. The Black female singer ends the scene by saying, “that little boy is in big trouble,” like she’s a mother who will have to punish her son.
These narrative sequences that connect Johnny as a Black man to a child communicate the film’s thesis on race: that black people are children, not meant to truly live in society. That they should be seen and not heard—a harsh connection made by a quick cut from Johnny’s face to a dead baby doll in a river in the last several minutes of the film.
The white men in the film seem to be the only adults in the room. Yet, critically the last scene communicates just how false that notion is. They beguile the robbery and fail to be the great heist men they dream of. We understand then that the white men only believe themselves to be the only adults in the room—the reality is that we’re all children in the end. The blind are leading the blind, equal in our ignorant belief in hope.
Wagner’s essay underscores the importance of score in Odds Against Tomorrow–confirming my own analysis of Johnny’s regression back to childhood via the score. In the club sequence, the score communicates Johnny’s fall from grace and his forced descent into criminality. Johnny transitions from singing like Belafonte to flailing at his instrument in an off-key, out-of-synch song. Here, Johnny’s “music reverts to childhood and he bangs out simple chord progressions as if playing a child’s toy piano.” This cacophonous moment of score speaks to the character’s desperate state, having just realized that he will be forced to take part in the heist in order to pay his debts.