Six months after escaping from a Northern Irish prison, Johnny McQueen (James Mason) kills a man and is himself fatally wounded when a robbery to raise funds for The Organisation misfires and he spends the next eight hours evading capture and drawing closer to death.
Carol Reed's 15th feature was his first entirely personal project and the contrast with anything that had gone before immediately struck contemporary critics and audiences, who were somewhat taken aback by the fact that he had chosen to produce such an anti-heroic story about a divided part of the triumphant nation so soon after the Second World War. Belfast is never identified by name and Johnny McQueen's political allegiance is downplayed as much as possible. But few were in any doubt that Reed had made a sympathetic (not to say quasi-religious) character out of an IRA gunman, while demonising his neighbours on either side of the sectarian divide.
James Mason gives one of his finest performances as the outsider who doesn't seem to fit anywhere, yet whose name is on everyone's lips - whether it's kids recreating his bungled raid; the police on his tail; Fr Tom (W.G. Fay), the priest who is only interested in saving his soul; Pat and Nolan (Cyril Cusack and Dan O'Herlihy), the comrades who are desperate to locate him; Lukey, the artist desirous of capturing his death throes on canvas; Shell, the derelict who would sell him to the highest bidder, or the women who either offer Johnny solace (loyal sweetheart Kathleen Ryan and compassionate housewife Fay Compton) or betray him (tart without a heart, Beryl Measor). Adapted by R.C. Sherriff and F.L. Green from the latter's novel, the story of a killer's desperate bid to avoid capture, despite knowing that he will die unless his wounds are treated, is as suspenseful as anything that Alfred Hitchcock produced during his British career. But, Robert Krasker's brooding monochrome photography (which anticipated the even more canted dislocations he would achieve in The Third Man) and Roger Furse and Ralph Binton's studio realist sets more readily recall the humane pessimism of such bleakly poetic Marcel Carné dramas as Quai des Brumes and Le Jour Se Lève in which Jean Gabin played tormented fugitives seeking refuge within Alexandre Trauner's atmospheric backstreet locales.
Suspense gives way to metaphor in a stark thriller that hints at the work to come from master Carol Reed.