Race Relations: The Lost Man (1969)

Race Relations continues with Jonathon Dabell looking at The Lost Man starring Sidney Poitier and Al Freeman Jr.

Back in 1947, a rather wonderful film was made by director Carol Reed called Odd Man Out. In it, James Mason starred as Johnny McQueen, the leader of some Irish freedom fighters, involved in a robbery designed to steal more funds for his organisation. After being injured during the hold-up, Johnny is unable to make it back to the rendezvous point. He spends the wintry night hiding out in various murky corners of Belfast as the police manhunt for him tightens its noose around the city.

Almost the same idea is re-used in The Lost Man, with variations provided by the fact that a) the action is moved to America and b) the main character is changed to a black revolutionary attempting to rob a ‘White Man’s’ bank to fund his group’s continuing struggles. More than anything else, the film comes across like an unofficial, racially-charged remake of Odd Man Out.

The Lost man 1Poitier stars as Jason, a meticulous and cool-as-ice agent working for a black activist group referred to, vaguely, as “the Organisation”. Jason arranges with a number of associates to set up a staged civil rights rally. The idea is to keep the police busy dealing with the rally while Jason and three others carry out an audacious heist at a bank a few blocks away. The plan looks foolproof; everything is going like clockwork; then the unexpected happens…

Sensing that Jason might not have the guts to pull the trigger in the face of resistance, the bank manager fights back. In the ensuing chaos, one of Jason’s men is killed by an armed security guard; during the retaliatory fire Jason is also shot, but he survives and kills the guard. Another hostage, a secretary, sees Jason’s face and hears the others referring to him by name – despite knowing that he should kill her to ensure her silence, Jason finds himself unable to blow her away in cold blood. Wounded, he is unable to make it to the getaway car in time and has to seek alternative means of escape. It isn’t long before the whole city is in lock-down as the police begin to tighten the noose in their hunt for the fugitives. Only partner-in-crime Dennis (Al Freeman Jr) and kindly white social worker Kathy (future Mrs. Poitier, Joanna Shimkus) offer any help in shielding Jason from the law. As night falls, he finds himself in increasingly desperate danger as the hunting pack close in…

The Lost Man paints a very ugly picture of the inequalities of society. Jason and many of his gang are seen living in poverty, planning their raid from ruined houses and garbage-strewn streets which look wholly unfit for human habitation. The peaceful demonstrations are shown to be emotional and sensitive events, with the threat of antagonism turning to violence constantly bubbling away on both sides of the argument. It is a bleak and desperate picture, and, while our sympathies lie marginally more with Poitier and his gang, their actions are not in any way condoned or glamorised. Ultimately, they are armed criminals, and their answer to their woes is not presented as a solution of any real merit: it’s merely another problem in the on-going cycle of violence and retribution.

Poitier is good in the movie, more-or-less keeping favour with the audience despite his criminal nature. He’s a well-nuanced character: human, vulnerable and remorseful about his actions, though ultimately still a bad guy. There are other strong performances too from the likes of Freeman Jr as Jason’s closest partner, Dysart as a white lawyer who works mainly on behalf of the blacks, and Michael Tolan as a dedicated cop determined to bring the robbers to heel.

The Lost man 2Female lead Joanna Shimkus gives a decent enough performance, but her role – as a widowed social worker whose sympathies lie with Poitier and his cause – is fundamentally unconvincing. It’s just very hard to buy into the idea that she would act the way she does under these circumstances. Yes, there is more than a hint that she loves Poitier, but she knows nothing about his true character and motives until after the crime. She falls too readily into helping him even though he has stolen a fortune and killed a cop – this stance seems to tug against the kind of person we know she is, and it doesn’t hold weight as a believable plot development. The ending especially is contrived and unpersuasive.

Overall, though, The Lost Man is a solid movie, well done and engrossing throughout. Its plea for a racially fairer society, where events like these don’t need to take place at all, is honourable and not at all sentimental. The build-up to – and actual carrying out of – the heist is suspensefully handled, and the eventual fate of the perpetrators is interesting enough to keep you watching. A slightly flawed film, maybe… but pretty good overall and certainly worth a look. It deserves to be far better-known than it is.

FMV Rating: ***

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