Thursday, May 6, 2010

Film Review: THE OUTFIT (1973, John Flynn)

Stars: 5 of 5.
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."
Domestic bliss.

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.

-Sean Gill

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.

4. ...





9 comments:

Peter said...

Awesome review. John Flynn was the man. RIP

Have you read the novel, Sean?

J.D. said...

I believe Westlake has gone on record as saying that Robert Duvall is his fave portrayal of Parker on the big screen and I think I would have to agree (sorry Lee Marvin). He is Mr. No-nonsense and is just there to get the job done, no matter what. He is the epitome of ruthless badass efficiency in this film.

I also thought that Duvall and Joe Don Baker made a great team. It's a shame that they didn't make more films together as they played well off each other, much like, as you so rightly point out, Devane and Jones in ROLLING THUNDER.

Flynn really cranked out some awesome crime films in his day and yet pretty much all of 'em are underappreciated.

Sean Gill said...

Peter,

I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't read any of Westlake's novels, but I hope to! Any recommendations on where to start?

J.D.,

It would make sense that he'd prefer Duvall over Marvin. I also read a quote where he envisioned Parker as Jack Palance (even though the idea never came to fruition). I wonder what he thought of Mel Gibson in PAYBACK (a movie which I thoroughly enjoyed, yet still can't hold a candle to these classics- though it gets a lotta points for casting Devane, Coburn, Kristofferson, John Glover, et al), though I do see he's involved in the extras for the Director's Cut (which I haven't seen).

I've also been told that for a great Joe Don Baker fix, I need to hunt down WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS, which sounds pretty amazing.

More Flynn appreciations are on the way- hopefully I'll get to DEFIANCE, LOCK UP, and BRAINSCAN in the next month or two. (And I see that THE SERGEANT has received a Warner Archives release...)

HK Fanatic said...

Damn the Man! I can't believe this isn't available to rent from Netflix. After reading your review, I'm chomping at the bit to see it. I love those terse, existential crime movies from the 70's like "Point Blank" and "The Driver."

HK Fanatic said...

And holy crap would I love to see you review "Brainscan." I saw that film many years ago and I honestly don't think I knew how to process it.

It tries to be the ultra-cool cross between "Videodrome" and a Clive Barker flick, but ends up feeling about as edgy as an early 90's "extreeeeme!" video game commercial. It's truly an oddity.

J.D. said...

Sean Gill:

I would recommend checking out the director's cut of PAYBACK. It is INFINITELY superior to the Gibson edit shown in theaters. When you watch the DC you see THE OUTFIT's influence big time, right down to '70s-style font and soundtrack. Plus, Westlake is even interviewed in one of the extras.

Have to track down WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS, sounds good. And, of course, Joe Don's magnum opus, MITCHELL! I get thirsty for a Schlitz just thinking about that film! ; )

Sean Gill said...

HK,

Yeah, I love these terse, gritty 70's crime flicks. I'm going to make an effort this summer to hunt down some of the more unavailable titles like BUSTING or SITTING TARGET or WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS. I've been told to check TCM's listings now and again, but I always forget.

BRAINSCAN- I've seen part of it years ago, but with my latest John Flynn kick and a revisiting of the mind-blowing trailer (you're spot-on, looks like VIDEODROME + the 'Virtual Boy' or something), it's now a must-see.

J.D.,

Definitely was planning to check out the PAYBACK DC at some point. And I gotta see MITCHELL! Its reputation precedes it, mostly because of MST3K, I presume, but it sounds like something truly special. Pass the Schlitz is right. Then, to continue the JDB appreciation, I've been meaning to catch JOYSTICKS for a long time (another one of those movies which sounds genius in theory but you have the sneaking suspicion will be more trouble than it's worth)

BuckAtwater said...

Another one of my favorites.
"You're Mackin..."
"That's right."


A lot of people give Joe Don Baker hell for stuff like Mitchell (even though I think it's fun) but I think he was excellent in some of these early 70's roles. This and Charley Varrick for sure, and to a slightly lesser extent in Walking Tall and Framed.

Sean Gill said...

Buck,

Thanks for stoppin' by. I don't think anyone ought to give Joe Don Baker hell– at least not if they intend to remain amongst the living while MITCHELL is around! Definitely one of my favorite character actors, he and Duvall make THE OUTFIT truly something special.