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An almost totally forgotten hybrid French/American crime thriller has quietly surfaced via the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Filmmaker Jacques Deray had a big hit with his 1970 gangster picture Borsalino; two years later he was in Los Angeles filming the very good The Outside Man. The original French title Un homme est mort sounds too generic. The Italian Funerale a Los Angeles hits the spot for this post- Point Blank tale of hit men blasting their way across The City of The Angels, from the Sunset Strip to Culver City to Venice Beach.
With money from United Artists Deray assembled a cast that could be imagined only by a French fan of crime pix. From overseas come Jean-Louis Trintignant, Michel Constantin and Umberto Orsini, while Ann-Margret, Roy Scheider and Angie Dickinson lead the American contingent. The jazzy music score by Michel Legrand has a main theme that would be at home in a blaxsploitation saga.
Parisian Lucien Bellon (Trintignant) arrives at LAX (the old, one-level airport), checks into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and proceeds to Hillhurst Drive in Beverly Hills, where he guns down top LA mobster Victor Kovacs (Ted de Corsia of The Naked City and The Killing). Victor's wife Jackie and son Alex (Angie Dickinson & Umberto Orsini) give a false description of the assassin to LAPD detective Anderson (Felice Orlandi of Bullitt). Bellon soon realizes that Kovacs' relatives have dispatched Detroit hit man Lenny (Roy Scheider) to kill him in turn, so the rest of the mob won't find out. The truth is that Bellon is not a professional, but a French gambler who accepted the job from Antoine (Michel Constantin) to repay a gambling debt. The careful but concerned Bellon hides out by kidnapping Mrs. Barnes (Georgia Engel of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and spending a few hours in her apartment, with her son Eric (Jackie Earle Haley of Watchmen). Chased and shot at by Lenny, Bellon finally makes contact with topless waitress Nancy Robson (Ann-Margret), who helps him get a passport. Together they outfox both the killers and the cops. Antoine and an associate arrive from France, furious at Alex Kovacs' betrayal. A final showdown occurs during Victor's funeral service, at Forest Lawn Mortuary.
It's always fun seeing what foreign directors make of Los Angeles, which they typically perceive as a sprawling 'nowheresville' ranging from luxurious mansions to skid row slums, all generously festooned with advertising, TV and vice. Jean-Louis Trintignant cruises through a Los Angeles turned into a shooting gallery. A Jesus-freak hitchhiker tangles with the insistent Lenny and his silenced rifle; Lenny seems able to catch up with Bellon anywhere. The Frenchman meets a cycle gang in the parking lot of Tower Records on Sunset and survives a chase through the long-gone wreckage of the Venice Amusement Pier. Cars vault the Venice Canal bridges and Roy Scheider's car spins out at the Wilshire Blvd. freeway off ramp. But most of the locations are L.A.-generic: a nondescript motel is said to be in Culver City, but could be anywhere in a 50-mile radius. This is a great movie for eyeing Los Angeles in 1972. Car lovers will be excited by all the hardware on display. One of Bellon's stolen vehicles is a 1971 Buick Skylark.
The doggedly literal The Outside Man doesn't oversell its cultural comments. Bellon watches Star Trek with little Eric, and then slaps him for picking up a phone receiver to spy on the Frenchman's conversation. The sweet Nancy meets Bellon in a downtown topless bar completely devoid of glamorous touches. The general civic corruption becomes clear when detective Anderson lectures Alex and Jackie over the murder of Victor -- the downtown LAPD brass just wants things kept quiet. Anderson must ask the ditzy Mrs. Barnes to identify one corpse after another. The dead bodies don't bother her, but she begins to enjoy the attention of the TV cameras.
The movie plays things so straight that fairly ordinary details seem funny. Bellon uses a coin-fed electric shaver in the downtown bus station, a device that looks like an easy way to catch 20 kinds of diseases. As Bellon never even threatens to smile, the reveal of his friendly grin on a passport photo is unexpectedly amusing. On the negative side, we never figure out how Lenny repeatedly finds Bellon so quickly. He should be the tracker, and let someone less clumsy do the killing part of the job. Also, most of the 'surprise' moments are easy to guess, so the attraction of the pursuit comes down to style, not suspense. A final macabre scene at the funeral home seems inspired by The Loved One. Victor Kovacs' corpse is not only set out for viewing, it's posed like a wax figure, sitting up and holding a cigar. If this is a complete fantasy (?) it disturbs the film's fairly realistic surface.
The film's bit parts are stacked with interesting names. John Hillerman works in a department store while Ben Piazza (from The Hanging Tree) is a hotel clerk. Director Deray may have made contact with the Coppola folk currently filming The Godfather, for a thin Talia Shire plays a funeral home attendant, and Alex Rocco is an L.A. hood. Finally, Playboy Playmate Connie Kreski is one of the topless entertainers at Ann-Margret's club. Ms. Margaret isn't seen at work, but the script gives her several sharp, frank lines of dialogue.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of The Outside Man is a very good enhanced transfer of this unexpected attraction. Unlike a couple of earlier Italian-American co-productions, Jacques Deray's show is filmed entirely on location. Big chunks of Machine Gun McCain and They Came to Rob Las Vegas use actor doubles on California locations, and cheat Italian locations wherever possible. The Outside Man has the look of the real Los Angeles. For this viewer, it was like a time machine back to my UCLA college days.
Most of the movie is performed in English. There are smatterings of French dialogue here and there, with no subtitles. I found them to be a problem, as the situations were so obvious. But sources that saw the film in 1972 indicate that the French dialogue was subtitled on theatrical prints. Although MGM has given us a good transfer this time around, some detail work that was standard on straight DVD releases has been abandoned for the Made On Demand business model.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Outside Man rates:
1. June 30, 2012:
Dear Glenn: It has been a very long time, but I recall a smattering of French subtitles in the domestic release print; these were minimal.
This was never given a really wide release in the states, but (sort of like UA's more-or-less contemporary English-track Lady Liberty, shot by Mario Monicelli largely on New York locations, starring Sophia Loren and William Devane) it did find its way into the exchanges. I saw it in a fairly small town in Michigan in the Fall of '73; it later turned up occasionally as a second feature at local drive-ins.
The cast is so strong, I just wish this were a better film. If Deray had more real style, this could have been a minor classic. Trintignant (very good in the picture) did not speak of this fondly when I asked him through an interpreter about it some years ago, but that may have had as much to do with his constant struggle with the English language demands of the role as anything else.I'm fairly sure that Trintignant, who speaks only French, learned his English dialogue for both this film and the later Under Fire phonetically.
I'd forgotten that Connie Kreski was in it -- another reason why Savant rules, to be sure. I'd like to see this again. I remember it agreeably, Ted de Corsia's crazy funeral and all. A nice, rough shot of L.A. circa 1972 is welcome from time to time... Best, Always. -- B.
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