“THE GOOD GUYS ALWAYS WIN”
Vengeance and victory in The Outfit
John Flynn’s The Outfit (1973) doesn’t start as explosively as the Donald Westlake novel on which it’s based (the third in the Parker series, written as Richard Stark), but that’s out of necessity. Parker is renamed Earl Macklin in the film, and he’s stripped of his history with the Outfit, a far-reaching crime syndicate, developed in The Hunter and The Man With the Getaway Face. Macklin, unlike Parker, hasn’t had plastic surgery to change his face and isn’t in the midst of an extended battle with the Outfit when the movie starts. Instead, Macklin’s impetus for revenge is the murder of his brother by Outfit hitmen. To this huge Parker fan, it’s a set-up that feels a little bit off, but it’s a relatively minor discomfort in a film that punches hard out of the gate and never lets up.
Robert Duvall plays Macklin. He’s brutal and graceful and loose. The Outfit is after Macklin because he and his brother robbed a bank in Wichita, Kansas that they control. After his brother is killed, Macklin, just out of jail for a weapons charge, seeks revenge. He also wants a quarter of a million dollars “to make things right.” Macklin joins up with his former partner Cody (Joe Don Baker), and they knock off a series of Outfit-run fronts. In doing this, they gain the attention of Mailer (Robert Ryan), the head of the Outfit. Macklin gets close to Mailer and tells him it won’t end until he gets paid. Mailer responds, “Hard guy. Think you’re Dillinger. You’re nothing but a goddamned independent, a heist guy. You’ve got no operation.” But he agrees to pay, saying Macklin’s a “small aggravation” he wants to be done with. A meet is arranged. Macklin and Cody are set up. They escape narrowly and plot to hit Mailer at his mansion. Macklin and Cody break in and attack Mailer and his goons. It’s all gritty and matter-of-fact. No chatter. Nothing dragged out. Classic ’70s freeze-frame at the end. Roll credits.
The only copy I have of The Outfit is taped from Turner Classic Movies, and it’s the perfect way to watch. Grainy and seedy, the film’s dark tones are accentuated. I’ve read in a few places that Flynn intended the film to be a period noir and, aside from the cars and some of the styles, it could easily be set in the ’30s or ’40s. It’s an interesting effect. And Flynn has a great eye for detail and color and location. Also noteworthy is the way Flynn uses silence. There’s plenty of music here – radios on, a bouncy ’70s score – but he also lets the quiet talk in certain scenes. The Dark Knight Rises, a film I watched right after my most recent viewing of The Outfit, is bogged down by its score, its noirishness dissolved into the constant swell and bump of a cloying orchestra. It’s as if Christopher Nolan is afraid of silence. Flynn’s not and the film is harder and sharper because it isn’t threaded through with such artifice.
In one of the film’s best sequences, Macklin and Cody meet up with Chemey (Richard Jaekel) and Buck (Bill McKinney) to score a hot car. Stunner Sheree North plays Buck’s wife and just about steals the picture. She’s poised in the yard, all hips and sex, when Macklin and Cody arrive at the farmhouse where Chemey and Buck run their operation. Later, alone with Cody, North comes out of the shower in a bathrobe and shows him what she’s got. Cody, soft-eyed, passes. There’s a moment before North emerges from the bathroom when she’s looking at herself in the mirror that’s one of the sexiest goddamn things I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil it for you by trying to describe what’s so special about the way North looks in that scene, but I will say it’s indicative of how a certain sort of beauty is portrayed and appreciated in films like this. Before Macklin and Cody take off, Buck’s wife accuses Cody of rape. Chemey, knowing what kind of woman she is, tries to stay out of it, but he can’t side against his brother. Buck goes for Cody. Macklin, respectful of Chemey, steps in. Duvall and Baker are great here, playing it hard but also playing it for laughs. The sequence, provocative and pulpy, is beautifully shot. And try not to dream about North.
Another great pleasure is the supporting cast Flynn plucked from classic noirs. Jane Greer (Out of the Past, The Big Steal), Marie Windsor (Force of Evil, The Narrow Margin, The Killing), Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, Dillinger, Born to Kill, The Big Sleep, The Killing), and Timothy Carey (The Killing) all pop up in bit parts. But it’s Robert Ryan (Crossfire, The Set-Up, On Dangerous Ground, Clash by Night, House of Bamboo) as Mailer who really stands out. “Shut up!” he barks at his wife (played by Joanna Cassidy), and it’s simultaneously shit-yourself-scary and funny as hell. Later, after finding out Macklin has slipped away from the Outfit’s hitmen again, he says, “I want his ass wrapped in cellophane!” Glorious. Ryan’s a tremendous presence when he’s onscreen, classy and sharp as an old school bad guy who’s learned the hard way that he’s not untouchable.
Karen Black as Bett.
If I have a beef, it’s with Karen Black as Bett, Macklin’s girlfriend. Black is fine to watch – wounded, withdrawn, shyly seductive – but her character is flat. In the Parker universe, Bett is a more compelling character, aggressive, wild, turned on by violence. She’s rich and curious, looking for something new. In the film, Bett’s just along for the ride. She’s there to worry and get slapped around. When she dies in a shoot-out, it’s a relief. Black tries, but there’s just not much to work with.
The Outfit ends with Macklin and Cody (who’s been winged by a goon) escaping Mailer’s mansion easily in a stolen ambulance. Macklin says, “Cody, I thought you said it was gonna be a bitch getting out of here.” Cody responds, “Hey, Earl. The good guys always win.” It’s a joyous moment. They are the good guys. They’ve crippled the Outfit. It’s not a soft-boiled ending, but it’s goddamn romantic.
Director: John Flynn
Screenplay: John Flynn (based on the novel by Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark)
Producer: Carter DeHaven
Starring: Robert Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Karen Black, Robert Ryan
Release Date: 1973