Tag-line: "Nobody plays rougher than The Outfit...except maybe Earl, Cody, and Bett!"
Running Time: 105 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Robert Duvall, Karen Black (EASY RIDER, NASHVILLE, THE GREAT GATSBY), Joe Don Baker (COOL HAND LUKE, CHARLEY VARRICK, LEONARD PART 6), Robert Ryan (BILLY BUDD, THE WILD BUNCH, HOUSE OF BAMBOO, THE PROFESSIONALS), Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER, STAY HUNGRY), Jane Greer (OUT OF THE PAST, Norma's mom on TWIN PEAKS), Richard Jaeckel (THE DIRTY DOZEN, STARMAN), Timothy Carey (PATHS OF GLORY, THE KILLING), Sheree North (TELEFON, CHARLEY VARRICK), Elisha Cook, Jr. (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP, ROSEMARY'S BABY, BLACULA). Music by Jerry Fielding (THE WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS). Based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake, aka Richard Stark (POINT BLANK, THE STEPFATHER, THE GRIFTERS).
Best one-liner: "Die someplace else."
One could say that the popularity of the 'crime film' represents our thinly-veiled desire to live out the seedy, vicarious thrills so readily provided by the genre. THE OUTFIT could go a long way in supporting that statement, but it could just as easily be used to dismantle it. It's got snappy noir dialogue, flashy con games, and feats of gun-blazing bravado; but it's tempered with quotidian details, cheerless characters, and unappealing locales. It takes place in those spaces behind spaces: hideously wallpapered hallways; back rooms with stained, pressboard ceilings; dingy men's rooms; sterile, colorless kitchens.
It's not an ugly movie, per sé, it just happens to take place in one dull, unappetizing location after another (with diversions on deserted, nondescript highways). I like this. It imbues the film with the squalid, low-rent atmosphere that the genre deserves. (And it originally was envisioned by Flynn as a period piece- elements of which remain in the finished film.) Flynn's direction almost becomes a character- he hammers out the scenes, getting straight to the root- the levelheaded truth- of each interaction. No frills, no dressing it up, just get it done, and do it right.
It reminds me of Don Siegel neo-noirs like THE KILLERS ('64) and CHARLEY VARRICK ('73) as much as it does the actual noirs like DETOUR ('46) and KISS ME DEADLY ('55). (Flynn very purposefully peppers his film with film noir icons, from Jane Greer to Elisha Cook, Jr. to Timothy Carey to the only Robert who could ever hold a candle to Mitchum: and that's Ryan.) And those quotidian details that I mentioned (like a realistic, genuinely-paced illegal gun sale or the time it takes to actually snatch up the money during a robbery) hearken back to the French crime flicks of Jacques Becker (TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI- '54) or Jean-Pierre Melville (LE CERCLE ROUGE- '70).
Robert Duvall is Macklin. Macklin's just been released from prison. He learns from his gal Bett (Karen Black) that his brother's been rubbed out on account of their robbing of an Outfit bank.
The Outfit is a Mafia-style organization, which, as the tag-line says, plays pretty rough. Just to give you an idea of how rough they play, Robert goddamn Ryan runs the fuckin' thing:
Macklin's a hard guy to read. He wears grungy wife-beaters, and is pretty quick with a gun, or a bottle, or whatever's on hand.
His ideas of leisure activities involve cleaning his weaponry, loading his weaponry, and slapping around women. Along with his buddy Cody (a grinning, hardass Joe Don Baker), he embarks on a mission to bring down the Outfit. A series of events take place- robberies, killings, and interrogations. Macklin plays his cards close to the chest. Does he have a plan? Does he even care about revenge? Does he just want to fuck with the Outfit as much as he can before dying? What's he even need all that money for? Does it matter?
Duvall plays Macklin as a husk of a man who quite possibly never cared about anything; or, perhaps more accurately, has never appeared to care about anything. We receive glimpses of a human being beneath- the way he clutches his grandfather's watch, the fleeting bursts of emotion, the way he cuts you off if you're about to ask something personal. And he's got some great lines, too– "I don't talk to guys wearing aprons. Get St. Claire." or "You send a guy out to kill somebody, maybe his feelings get hurt." Duvall robs mobster after mobster after mobster, then disdainfully mutters about how easy it is, how these guys run a "shitheel operation." I love it.
Joe Don Baker's Cody here is almost as much fun as his villainous 'Molly' in CHARLEY VARRICK. "Suit yourself," says Sheree North after he spurns her advances. "I always do," he cooly retorts, the words curling forth from his lips with an oily tangibility to them, as if smarminess were something one could lay their hands on. He's got a great dynamic with Duvall here, and the hardened matter-of-factness which defines their interactions reminded me of the relationship between William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones in Flynn's ROLLING THUNDER.
You can play make believe, and run your diner or your bar or whatever, but these kinds of guys only bide their time, waiting for that ecstatic moment where they'll have a gun in their hand and an occasion to use it. Joe Don gets to punch out an unsuspecting female phone dispatcher, too, and it's just about on par with Clu Gulager tormenting the blind secretary in THE KILLERS.
Robert Ryan is Mailer. His missus is Rita (Joanna Cassidy), and their love seems defined by how many times Ryan can tell her to "Shut up."
In fact, that's kiiind of Robert Ryan's catchphrase in this movie. And I never get tired of hearing him bark it, whether it's directed at the wife, our protagonists, or his henchmen. Ryan is never less than fantastic, and he exudes the proper weight, authority, and hot-tempered crabbiness that one would expect from a leader of the Outfit.
One of my favorite elements of this film is, again and again, how easily henchmen are convinced to A. Reveal intelligence info, B. Name names, or C. Give it up and go home. Over and over, the line "they're not paying me (or you) enough" is used by rationalizing, pushover goons and our persuasive protagonists alike. (Or "Don't be brave, buster- you just work here.") And you know what, it's true! Why do henchmen in movies generally find themselves so willing to fight to the death for mob bosses who are probably paying them like $100 a day to put their necks on the line? Shit on that. And often they get themselves killed even after their boss is dead. No, they're not paying you enough. It gives the film a humorous ongoing motif and lends it the ring of truth: it's the little matter-of-fact moments like this which really make it work (and have gone on to inspire filmmakers like Tarantino and Soderbergh- I'm thinking of the henchmen's squabble over what a 'sliding scale pay system is' in THE LIMEY).
In all, THE OUTFIT's one of the prime examples of that great 70's wave of American neo-noir, from Walter Hill's THE DRIVER to Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES to Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN to Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE. No longer is crime hidden in expressionistic shadow and decked out in foreboding trench coats and ritzy fedoras; it's seeing the harsh light of day in a cheap, soiled suit- exposed to the world, warts and all. I also heartily recommend Flynn's ROLLING THUNDER (in a similar vein, but Schrader-ized) and Siegel's CHARLEY VARRICK (which uncannily shares with THE OUTFIT the plot element of robbing a mob-owned bank, a badass hero with nebulous motives, several key cast members, and they both came out in October of 1973!). For THE OUTFIT- five stars.
And a special thanks to J.D. at Radiator Heaven whose copy of THE OUTFIT made this review possible!
And why not- I'll add it to the Summer Movie series- it's best seen in a four-dollar room with a malfunctioning ceiling fan. Pass the Schlitz.