Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Outfit (1973)

Editor's note: This week's article is written by hard-boiled writer Wallace Stroby. The Barbed-Wire Kiss was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. His new novel, Gone 'til November is coming out in January. This week, Wallace tackles one of the best "Richard Stark" movies: The Outfit.

In the 1970s, revenge was sweet. At least on movie screens.

Take a look at the decade’s crime films and you’ll see a butcher’s bill of vengeance and rough justice - Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, Rage, Framed, Fighting Mad. And that’s not counting the blaxploitation genre or low-budget horrors like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. Whatever cultural influences were aswirl back then, audiences were apparently mad as hell, and eager to put their money down to watch a little vicarious payback.

John Flynn’s The Outfit has the trappings of a ‘70s revenge film, but it has a noir heart. Released in 1973, it’s based on the third of Donald E. Westlake’s “Parker” novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Both book and film pit a ruthless professional thief against the nationwide crime syndicate of the title. The first book in the series, 1962’s The Hunter, became the 1967 Lee Marvin film Point Blank, and Parker would return to the screen a half dozen more times, albeit under different aliases.

Of all the films based on the Stark books, The Outfit might be the most faithful (a close second is director Brian Helgeland’s cut of 1999’s Payback, also based on The Hunter, and starring Mel Gibson). In Flynn’s film, the Parker character is played by Robert Duvall, here named Earl Macklin, a professional heister just out of prison and eager to avenge the murder of his brother Eddie by mob hitmen. Macklin joins up with his former partner Cody, played by ‘70s icon Joe Don Baker, and the two cut a wide swathe through the California underworld, knocking over mob fronts, poker games and illegal casinos. Macklin ostensibly wants revenge for his brother’s death, but he also wants “$250,000 to make things right. I hit you until you pay me. What I take in-between is extra.”

As in Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, released that same year, the mob is angry at Macklin, Eddie and Cody for having robbed one of its banks in Wichita, Kansas (only in ‘70s films do gangsters actually own entire banks). Their payback killing of Eddie then becomes the impetus for Macklin and Cody’s war of attrition, as the pair move from heist to heist, accompanied by Macklin’s girlfriend, Bett Harrow (Karen Black).

The novel had simpler motivations. The mob is after Parker because he beat them out of $45,000 in The Hunter. Parker is after the mob because they’re after him. And unlike Macklin, the single-named Parker has little backstory - he’s an existential loner battling institutional evil.

Despite these plot and character variations, Flynn’s film (he also scripted) lifts whole scenes and set pieces intact from the book, in particular an interlude in which Macklin and Cody buy a hot car from two redneck brothers, played by Richard Jaeckel and Bill (Deliverance) McKinney. Cody is based on Handy McKay, a recurring character from the Parker novels (both own diners, Handy’s in Maine, Cody’s in Oregon). Bett Harrow appears in the book as well, though only briefly (she returns as a major character in the next Stark novel, The Mourner.)


There’s a lot of Parker in Macklin, and Flynn’s screenplay often approximates Westlake’s staccato, adverb-free prose. During his robberies, Macklin, like Parker, takes the time to ask his victims their names, so as to better control and calm them. He’s cool and collected enough to disarm a gunman, beat him senseless and then send him on his way with a dismissive “Die someplace else” (a line taken directly from the book). And during the climactic attack on the mob boss’s mansion, he wards off late-responding bodyguards with a terse “Stay out of it. He’s dead. You’re unemployed” - and a silenced automatic.

Over the years, Westlake often praised Duvall’s performance. “That’s the guy I wrote,” he said more than once. In contrast to Marvin in Point Blank, Duvall’s Macklin actually feels like a living, breathing human being, with a sense of humor to boot (he and Cody laugh giddily after narrowly escaping with their lives during a shootout). Early on, Macklin fondles an antique pocket watch handed down from his grandfather. “A Justice of the Peace,” he proudly says. “Greenville, Kentucky, 1882.” At another point, he claims St. Louis as his home, and makes reference to a wife and child he never sees.

Shot in sun-bleached Los Angeles and Bakersfield locations, The Outfit sometimes feels like a slightly downmarket Sam Peckinpah film. The opening titles play over a prison sequence (not in the book) that recalls Peckinpah’s The Getaway, released the previous year. The score is by Peckinpah regular Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), and the cinematography by another ‘70s icon, Bruce Surtees, the DP on almost all of Clint Eastwood’s films until the mid-’80s. In its set design and costumes, The Outfit also harkens back to the Depression-era-outlaw genre, accented by Black’s pseudo-Faye Dunaway/Bonnie Parker wardrobe.

Cast-wise, The Outfit sports a full house of noir icons. Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin), Jane Greer (Out of the Past), Timothy Carey (The Killing), Emile Meyer (Riot in Cell Block 11), and Elisha Cook Jr. (you name it) all make appearances. Jazz singer Anita O’Day is briefly glimpsed in a nightclub scene, and former world boxing champion Archie Moore shows up as well (look quick for longtime Hollywood gossip columnist Army Archerd as a butler).

But the ace in the hole is Robert Ryan, in one of his final roles. As Mailer, the boss of bosses, Ryan spends most of his screen time seething in barely controlled anger, and snarling at his trophy wife (“Shut up! Get in the car!”), played by a very fit-looking Joanna Cassidy in her first billed film role. Mailer seems disgusted by himself, everyone around him and everything he’s obtained. He almost admires Macklin, even though he knows the freelancer will more than likely be the instrument of his doom.

Westlake’s Parker went on for 21 more novels, the final being 2008’s Dirty Money. Though Westlake died last year, all the Parker books are making their way back into print via the University of Chicago Press. The film version of The Outfit is less easily found. Its only home video appearance was in a grainy, speckled fullscreen VHS print released by MGM/UA in 1996. It remains unavailable on DVD, as does Flynn’s other iconic ‘70s revenge film, the Paul Schrader-scripted Rolling Thunder.

The Outfit is not a hidden masterpiece by any means. The editing is sometimes choppy, and the pace lags a bit in spots. Black has a lot of screen time, but little chemistry with Duvall. She seems to be merely along for the ride, to provide some cliched tender moments and help humanize Macklin. “Money won’t do you any good,” his brother’s widow, played by Greer, warns him. “What do you want it for? You got a woman. You got time.”

At its best, The Outfit captures the noir universe of the Stark books, where cool professionals ply their trade in an amoral world. It proved too amoral for network television though. When NBC aired the TV version, they lopped off the final minutes of the film, and ended it with a freeze-frame of Macklin and Cody stopping to catch their breath on a stairwell after the final shootout. With sirens swelling on the soundtrack, the TV print suggests they’re willingly lingering there, knowing they’ll be caught. The VHS version (and recent TCM screenings) restored the original ending, in which the pair make their getaway in an ambulance during the resulting chaos. The film does end with a classic ‘70s freeze-frame, but not before Baker gets to deliver the ironic final line, “Hey, Earl. The good guys always win.”


Written by Wallace Stroby

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8 comments:

  1. Though I've only seen it once, the atmosphere and overrall "feel" of The Outfit has stayed with me. I like the stripped-down...everything. I'm sure it didn't have a huge budget, and I'm aware of the "TV movie" accusations it gets, based on John Flynn's direction, but that works in favor of the film. In fact, it's what has stayed with me whenever I think of the film.

    And Sheree North never looked better, either.

    And while I'm lacking a copy of the film, at least Jerry Fielding's wonderful score--put to good use in the clip you provided--is available, coupled with Johnny Mandel's "Point Blank."

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  2. Another wonderful film from the early 70s. This was a true Golden Period between 1971-5 where Hollywood were turning out classic after classic such as "Dirty Harry", "Prime Cut", "Charley Varrick" and "The Conversation".

    Hard to believe that other greats such as "The French Connection" and "The Godfather Pts 1 and 2" actually got made, let alone were successful...

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  3. One of my favorite 70's revenge films. John Flynn is seriously underrated. The Outfit and Rolling Thunder are both incredible. I don't understand why someone doesn't just slap them together in a two-for-one package. There is a definitely an audience out there for these films.

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  4. I've been looking for this film even before it was posted here. My local video store had a copy on VHS which they told me was out for repairs. When I asked about it again a few weeks later they'd sold it. I can't find it anywhere. Where do I see it?

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  5. What a blast looking for noir icons in this one.

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  6. I actually got to see this on VHS about 4 years ago when I was on a Richard Stark "Parker" kick and found it The Outfit had been made into a film. I was lucky a local mom-and-pop video store still had it, but they are gone now. I'd say it was a fairly good movie, but certainly not great. One thing I did like about the film better than the book was having Macklin and his partner commit all of the crimes. In the book, Parker sets off a chain reaction of robberies by sending out the message to his branch of the underworld that it's open season on the mob, which I found to be more over the top and unrealistic.

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  7. The Outfit next airs on Turner Classic Movies (USA) on Friday August 13, 2010 @ 4 AM.

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  8. THE OUTFIT ist finally out on DVD-R via Warner's Archive Collection.

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