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The Outfit is adapted from the third of sixteen "Parker" novels written by prolific novelist Donald E. Westlake under the name Richard Stark. The character Parker is an ingenious and daring armed robber who usually finds himself in more trouble with the mob than the cops. The first Parker novel The Hunter was adapted in 1967 as Point Blank, with star Lee Marvin playing the lead character under the name Walker. Director John Boorman turned Point Blank into a sometimes impenetrably edited gangland art-film; it was a big hit in a breakout year of violent movies.
Director John Flynn made his reputation with The Sergeant a psychodrama about a homosexual attraction in the ranks; cult fans know him best as the director of 1977's Rolling Thunder an ultraviolent revenge tale with William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. But The Outfit may be his best show. It's a low-key, high-octane mobster shoot 'em up with slick action, a lean script and a dream supporting cast of icons from classic films noir. As is typical for an Aubrey-era MGM release, it didn't receive anything like the marketing push it deserved, but crime fans loved it. Just one look at the top stars -- Robert Duvall, Karen Black and Joe Don Baker -- was all it took.
"Parker", here called Earl Macklin (Duvall) is released from prison after serving a term for being caught in violation of his parole. Expecting to reunite with his two cohorts from an earlier bank robbery, he discovers that his brother has been murdered by the mob. Earl's girlfriend Bett Jarrow (Karen Black) was forced by syndicate middle manager Menner (Timothy Carey, as psychotic as ever) to betray him. Bett accompanies Earl as he visits his brother's widow Alma (Jane Greer) and drives the getaway car when he breaks into Menner's card game, robs the players, and demands a huge payment from the syndicate. Earl then contacts his other partner Cody (Joe Don Baker) and they run wild raiding Menner's backroom gambling rooms. Earl never has any illusions that the mob (known as "the Outfit") will do anything more than try to kill him, so he and Cody strike first and hardest. When the western area chief Mailer (Robert Ryan) reneges on an agreement, the pro team of Earl and Cody elect to hit him in his own fortified mansion, a probably suicide mission: "We can get in, but I don't know about getting out."
The Outfit is a refreshingly uncomplicated crime picture, free of the pretensions and social frou-frou of the early 70s. Earl Macklin aren't on any kind of noble mission. They're hardened working-class criminals and don't represent anything more than their own code of conduct -- they don't even listen to country music. Bett is understandably driven to distraction by Earl's lack of communication and general bad attitude. Yet he holds no grudge against her for betraying his brother, as he knows she would have been killed otherwise. Earl's a mean mother, shooting Menner's hand without warning, just for kicks. Cody's much more even-tempered but is also capable of getting a good hate on when necessary. Neither man kills average mob hoods when there's no need. Getting the draw on an unlucky goon, Macklin tells him to "Go die somewhere else."
For a supposed neo-noir, an awful lot goes right for these two gunmen. Their disguises work beautifully as they burst into the Outfit's money counting rooms disguised as mailmen and repair guys. They interact with a lot of old-timers, none of whom rats them out. A wonderful sequence takes place on a farm when Cody and Earl exhange a hot car for one with a clean record. Mechanic Cherney (Richard Jaeckel of The Lineup) makes the deal, but his brother Buck (Bill McKinney of Deliverance gets riled when his trampy wife (Sheree North) accuses Cody of trying to rape her. North is about as close to an old-fashioned noir femme fatale as The Outfit gets, and nobody takes her seriously but her pea-brained husband. Bett is a lost girl who makes a disappointing phone call, asking if she can return home and getting turned down -- reminiscent of Montgomery Clift's phone-home in The Misfits. The only other woman with more than a few lines is Mailer's wife Rita (Joanna Cassidy of Blade Runner. She can't do much more than complain, as her mob boss husband mostly tells her (and everybody else) to shut up. As this is 1973, all three women appear at least once in revealing attire -- too bad the crooks they're with have so little extra time to play around.
John Flynn stages action stylishly, but without undue frills. What we're mostly aware of is Cody and Earl's brute efficiency. Even better is that nothing about the action scenes is cartoonish -- nobody dodges bullets, performs uncanny acrobatic feats or takes outrageous punishments and keeps on ticking.
At age 42, Robert Duvall was just getting his star career going; he plays the part without a toupee. Joe Don Baker made a huge splash the same year as the star of the reactionary vigilante epic Walking Tall. Karen Black was the darling of the "new Hollywood" around this time, making a lot of pictures that are still well-known.
The Outfit is one of Robert Ryan's last movies, made when he was dying of cancer. The role doesn't give him much more to do than simmer with anger. But the parade of familiar faces is like a who's who of noirdom. Here's the rundown: Emile Meyer (Panic in the Streets, The People Against O'Hara, The Mob, Shield for Murder, Sweet Smell of Success, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup); Roy Roberts (The Brasher Doubloon, He Walked by Night, Force of Evil, The Killer that Stalked New York); Roy Jenson (The Getaway, Chinatown), Elisha Cook Jr. (Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady, The Big Sleep and everything else; Marie Windsor (Force of Evil, The Narrow Margin, The Sniper, City that Never Sleeps, The Killing); and the aforementioned Jane Greer (They Won't Believe Me, Out of the Past, The Big Steal, The Company She Keeps) and Timothy Carey (Crime Wave & The Killing. Some of these actors have rather tiny parts, but all make an impact, eliciting a nice, "ooh, thats...." reaction.
I first saw The Outfit edited on television, and was impressed by the 'existential' re-edited ending it was given, so as to not allow the criminals to get away. It must have cut two or three minutes off the film's running time as well. Real fanatics for the movie might check out the UCLA Research Library's department of special collections. When I was a student worker there in 1974, director John Flynn was a frequent visitor, depositing various goodies from his personal collection. The library should still possess a set of storyboards for The Outfit; I remember the boards for the opening sequence.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Outfit is a good remastered transfer that represents the first time the film has been viewable at a proper aspect ratio since its theatrical days. The look of the film is grainy, with subdued color, as many pictures were in 1973. Jerry Fielding's score comes across well on the audio track. An "action-packed" trailer is included. I grabbed up a VHS of The Outfit when I had the chance and now can ditch that eyesore. I can see myself looking at this show every couple of years or so -- it's a real pleasure.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Outfit rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.