Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan and Ed Begley, Sr showcase their acting chops under the direction of Robert Wise in this dark, radical film shot on location in New York City and Hudson, NY. In addition to the three male leads, the film features strong performances from a sultry Gloria Grahame and the reliably-dour Shelly Winters, along with a spirited cameo by singer Mae Barnes.
Part film noir and part melodrama, the story involves a bigoted, small-time thief named Earl Slater (Ryan), and a black musician deeply in debt to the mob named Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), both of whom are forced to work together in a bank robbery orchestrated by former cop, Dave Burke (Begley).
While primarily a heist movie, “Odds Against Tomorrow” deftly delves into the subject of racism and segregation without stalling the storyline. Director Wise is definitely in his wheelhouse, meshing social issues with suspenseful thrills, all on the backdrop of what feels like an abandoned Manhattan and a forgotten Upstate NY town. He also takes advantage of Belafonte’s musical talents by crafting a superbly tense scene in which he belts out a tune in a nightclub while we can see fear and anger mounting in his psyche — something that culminates in the final minutes of the film.
Even though the number of NYC locations used in the film were minimal, what’s interesting is seeing a relatively calm Manhattan of 1959, on the precipice of harder times — a period that would last a good 20-30 years.
As soon as I saw the scene, I guessed that it took place somewhere along Riverside Drive, mostly because of the narrow park and river that appeared across the street. But instead of immediately cruising up the Drive in Google Street View, I first searched online for any references to either of the hotels that appeared in these scenes.
I couldn’t find any information on Hotel Juno, but I did find some references to the Norcit Hotel in several 1959 issues of The New York Age (one of the first Black newspapers in the United States, dating back to 1880, but which ended its run one year after this movie came out). The weekly want ads for the hotel promoted, “Beautiful studio rooms” with such amenities as “maid” and “switchboard” services, along with “kitchen privileges.” But more importantly, they gave an address of 617 W 143rd Street, which clearly matched the film.
Even though these two places were called “hotels,” I assume they were basically weekly, low-end housing for transients and people down on their luck — a kind of squalid place that doesn’t really exist in NYC anymore.
Giving Burke a Ride
The first part of this scene was found by looking up Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home (which appears mid-block on the righthand side), trying to find an address on a two-way street on the Upper West Side. Since the scene clearly ended up on Central Park West, I figured it had to be on either 96th, 86th, or 72nd. After a little searching online, I found an address for the funeral home at 117 W 72nd Street, and confirmed the location by matching up several extant buildings on both sides of the street.
Fortunately, even though all the car interiors were shot on a soundstage, the scene stayed geographically accurate and remained on 72nd Street until they turned onto Central Park West. This was confirmed after matching up the base of the Majestic on the corner of 72nd, a landmarked apartment building noted for its eye-catching twin towers. It’s one of several dual-towered apartment buildings situated along Central Park West, which also includes the San Remo, the Eldorado, the Beresford and the Century.
Conceived by real estate developer Irwin S. Chanin during the economic boom of the 1920s, the Majestic Apartments was completed in 1931, taking the place of the former Hotel Majestic, which was on that site since 1894. The new structure was originally planned to be a grand 45-story hotel, but when the Great Depression hit the country, it was changed to a residential building with only 32 floors.
Considered to be one of the first substantial modern buildings to make its way to this part of Manhattan, the Majestic is a perfect example of Art Deco architecture. The design is simple but impactful, juxtaposing orange horizontal brickwork with strong vertical lines, and is almost completely devoid of any ornamentation.
When the building opened in the fall of 1931, it was promoted as an ideal complement to the “modern New York life,” offering a beneficial sanctuary from the nonstop hullabaloo that went on south of 59th Street. An early brochure talked about the advantages of the building’s location, emphasizing its extrication from the smoke and soot in Midtown Manhattan and its close proximity to the peaceful refuge of Central Park. But the Great Depression stalled the number of residencies in the building, and the banks took over collecting rent in lieu of foreclosure. At the time, a 10-room tower apartment went for around $6,500 per year, where the same apartment today would cost tens of millions of dollars to buy.
But high prices hasn’t stopped celebrities from settling down at the Majestic, which has seen its share of famous residents, including Milton Berle, Walter Winchell, Zero Mostel, and Conan O’Brien.
The monumental Central Park West residence has also been home to some notorious figures as well, such as Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. In fact, in 1957, Costello was almost gunned down in the Majestic’s lobby when protégé of the rival Genovese crime family, Vincent “Chin” Gigante, took a shot at him, grazing his skull. Several months later, after a city-wide manhunt, Gigante was apprehended and tried for attempted murder, but was acquitted when Costello refused to finger him as the shooter.
According to reporters at the courthouse, after his acquittal, Gigante was overheard saying to Costello, “Thanks, Frank.”
Meeting the Mob in Central Park
This scene was obviously shot in Central Park, and based on the proximity to the 59th Street skyline, I gathered it took place at Sheep Meadow. (I briefly considered Frisbee Hill, an area just to its north, but after going there in person and seeing how hilly Frisbee Hill actually was, I rejected that idea.)
The one thing that threw me off for a little bit was the “Mineral Springs” Restrooms and Café building, which is currently located just north of Sheep Meadow. I just assumed the small hexagonal structure predated the film, so I couldn’t understand why it didn’t appear behind Ed Begley in this scene. (See the “before/after” images above.) But it turns out that it was actually constructed sometime after this movie was made.
Originally, when the Park first opened, that spot was occupied by a Moorish-style concession building that served a variety of natural spring water from silver taps to customers hoping the water’s restorative powers would help cure their ailments. Designed by Calvert Vaux in the late 1860s, the pavilion just north of Sheep Meadow was a popular spot with people who paid 5 to 10 cents a glass for these “water curatives,” convinced they could treat any number of body issues, such as fever, rheumatism, or digestive problems.
However, as this health trend started dying down in the 20th century, there was no longer a need for a Mineral Springs Pavillon in the park and the elegant building was demolished sometime in the 1950s. So clearly, the pavilion was razed at some point before this film was made, which explains why there was nothing seen along the north path in this scene.
Once I figured out the reason for this discrepancy, I became confident this scene was shot in Sheep Meadow. After that, when I went to Central Park in person, I was able to get a better lay of the land and was able to line up a lamppost and some rock formations which helped me pinpoint where the actors stood.
While I had a rough idea of where this apartment was located, I’m not sure how quickly I would’ve found it if it wasn’t for the obvious landmark tower in the background which I was pretty sure was located near Madison Square Park. So, I looked at that area in Google satellite view, found the New York Life Insurance tower at 51 Madison Avenue, and then just started looking at residential blocks to the east of it until I found matching buildings on E 26th Street.
The 40-story, granite and limestone New York Life Building was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the iconic Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan. It occupies an entire block at the northeast corner of Madison Square Park — the same location of the original Madison Square Garden. Dedicated with a gala ceremony in December 1928, the Cathedral-style building with its prominent tower was a highly visible presence in New York City for a long time. And even though it’s mostly hidden by the soaring skyscrapers that dominate the Manhattan skyline today, the New York Life Building is still a standout structure in the general vicinity, holding the same unobstructed view from 26th Street as it did when this film was made.
However, there was one thing that confused me when I tried to line-up the tower in the “before/after” images for this scene. Even though I was pretty sure I was standing at the same spot as the camera was back in 1959, the tower roof on the New York Life Building didn’t match up. It appeared much taller in the modern pictures compared to what it looked like in the film. I eventually chalked it up to a distortion made by the lenses used by the camera team, but that explanation never sat well with me.
Finally, after doing a little digging, I discovered that the roof was actually reconfigured in 1966-1967, which would explain the differences in height and appearance.
Johnny and His Daughter in the Park
All of these locations were pretty easily identified since they took place at several well-known Central Park landmarks. The carousel was, of course, one of the easiest, although it took me a little bit of time to figure out the exact spots used just outside of the building. The landscaping around the children’ ride has changed a bit since 1959, but fortunately, the nearby Playmates Arch offered a reliable guidepost.
The carousel that’s in the park today is the fourth since 1871, but is the same one that was featured in this scene (although it saw some extensive renovations and upgrades in 1990). This classic, handcrafted merry-go-round, which was discovered collecting dust in Coney Island, was installed in Central Park after the previous one burned down in November of 1950, but the ride actually dates back 1908.
I figured out the location of the ice skating scene fairly quickly as well. The Wollman Rink, which was built on top of an old extension of the Pond nine years prior to this film, was easy to identify by reputation alone, although the nearby buildings on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street helped me get the proper orientation. The ice skating rink is probably best known today for being a local success-story and publicity campaign for Donald Trump, who managed to get the recreational facility up and running in 1986, after it fell into disrepair in the 1970s. The city spent six years and $13 million trying to renovate it, but kept hitting setbacks. That’s when the then 39-year-old real estate mogul made a public offer to renovate the rink himself in exchange for the right to run it.
However, things came to an end in 2021, when the city announced that they would be cancelling the Trump Organization’s contract to operate Wollman Rink (along with the Lasker Rink, and Carousel) at the end of the season.
The final location at the zoo was also easy to identify, but it was a little tricky figuring out where exactly the phone booths were since several of the buildings have been revamped and almost all of the cages have been removed. But using the chimneys on the nearby roof and the Armory in the distance, I was able to get a general idea of where the booths used to be.
One fascinating part of this sequence was the pony rides that was set up just south of the zoo entrance. While this small section of land is now just an unassuming patch of grass, it used to be home to this classic children’s attraction for nearly a century. Run by the same family since the early 1900s, the popular ride saw an upgrade in 1956 when the pony track was reconstructed and a watering trough was installed. This was just a couple years before it would be featured in Odds Against Tomorrow, where Johnny hands the driver a buck to “keep the ride going” while he made a phone call. That dollar probably would have given him five or ten minutes of free time since a trip around the track cost about 15 cents in 1959.
While I wasn’t able to find an exact date of when they discontinued this concession, apparently it lasted at least until the mid-1980s, when the cost of a pony ride was up to two dollars (although a ride on a cart only set you back 75 cents).
Going to a Local Tavern
When trying to find this location, the thing that helped get me started was the Chrysler Building, which appeared in the far background. Judging by the distance and orientation of the iconic skyscraper, I figured the scene took place somewhere between Park and 2nd Avenues in the 20s or 30s. Then, after noticing a street address of 395 on the corner building, I used that to better hone my search, eventually leading me to Third Avenue and East 28th Street (which ended up being only a few blocks away from Earl’s apartment location).
Clearly, a lot of the buildings on Third Avenue have since been demolished and replaced, including the corner bar which is now a Starbucks. However, most of the residential buildings along the north side of 28th Street are the same ones that appeared in this scene.
It might be noted that while all the NYC exteriors were shot on location in Manhattan, the interiors were shot on sets built at Gold Medal Studios at 807 East 175th Street in the Bronx, which was originally the Biograph Studio when it first opened in 1913. Over the years, numerous cinematic legends spent time working on these stages, including D. W. Griffith, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Buster Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Humphrey Bogart, and Erich von Stroheim. By the 1970s, Gold Medal Studios was forced to close its doors, and the facilities remained dormant until they burned down in 1980.
You can read more about this Bronx studio on film historian John Bengtson’s fascinating website, Silent Echoes.
Even though most of the sets for Odds Against Tomorrow were not perfectly naturalistic, they did manage to capture the dark and desolate world created by the filmmakers. One of the more elaborate sets was for the nightclub, which included not only a bar and stage area, but a bunch of shadowy, smoke-filled nooks and crannies that added to the claustrophobic feeling of the scenes.
City of “Melton”
Pretty much every movie website and article about Odds Against Tomorrow mentioned that the filming locations of the fictional town of “Melton” were really in Hudson, New York. While specific locations were not mentioned in every article, a few websites did list the address of the bank on Warren Street. From there, I was able to figure out a lot of the other locations used, which were within a block or two of the bank. A couple of the other locations, including the establishing shots of “Melton” and the empty lot next to the river where the men meet up, I found by opening a satellite view of Hudson on Google and just looking around.
What’s cool is that pretty much every building in Hudson is still around today and looks almost the same as it did in 1959, with maybe a fresher coat of paint or a more modern sign. As a matter of fact, except for the corner bar on Third Avenue, almost every building featured in this film has survived over the years.
Considered by many film scholars to be one of the last classic film noirs to be produced, 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow is a must-see for any fan of the genre. Like I mentioned in the introduction, this film carries a slightly heavier weight as it smartly weaves in racial issues that not only reflect the social changes that were happening in the country, but also advance the plot in a significant way. The whole heist falls apart because of racism, bias, and a lack of trust between men.
Even though it gets a little heavy-handed at the very end, director Robert Wise manages to keep the story chugging along while also making social comments along the way. The stark black-and-white photography is especially poignant along these lines, making every location seem like a proscenium stage.
A lot of credit should go to the superb cast, in which there’s not a single weak link among them. Every actor manages to strike a perfect balance between heightened melodrama and authentic realism. They keep their performances in tune with the dark, “film noir” world they inhabit, while also being grounded in a way that helps demonstrate the social issues being explored. This holds true not only for the leads, but the entire supporting cast.
The tension is palpable, the characters are memorable, and the movie’s message is clear.
As I’ve mentioned before, all the actors in this film are great, but the stand out is definitely Harry Belafonte. And after watching such a powerful performance, I was surprised that he didn’t do more acting gigs in the years that followed.
That’s not to imply that he didn’t do other films, I just feel as though he could’ve had an acting career as big as Sidney Poitier, who was the leading African-American actor of that time. And the fact that Belafonte served as one of the producers on this film, a successful future behind the scenes seemed like a plausible path as well. But of course, if he did focus too much of his attention on the movie business, his musical career could have suffered by it.
So, perhaps it was wise that he never jumped headfirst into the film world. That way, we were all able to... Jump in the Line.