FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Outfit
Reviewed by Richard Porton
Produced by Carter DeHaven; directed by John Flynn; screenplay by John Flynn; based on the novel by Richard Stark; cinematography by Bruce Surtees; music by Jerry Fielding; starring Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan, and Joanna Cassidy. Color, 103 min. A Warner Bros. Archive release.
In a 2006 tribute to the crime novels of Richard Stark (one of Donald Westlake’s several pseudonyms), the novelist John Banville lauded Parker, Stark’s hardboiled antihero, as a masterly creation on a par with some of “Simenon’s monsters” and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley (http://www.slate.com/id/2142091/). A laconic man who kills his enemies efficiently and with no apparent regrets, Parker appeals to readers because he represents a perverse twist on traditional American rugged individualism. A career criminal at odds with an underworld empire known only as “the organization” or “the outfit,” he satisfies, despite his status as a merciless killer, a time-honored American weakness for renegades who take on the system—and get away with it.
The Hunter, Stark’s first Parker novel, was made into one of the most celebrated neo-noirs of the Sixties—John Boorman’s Point Blank. (1967). A lesser-known adaptation of a subsequent Parker thriller—John Flynn’s The Outfit (1973)—is considerably less flashy than Point Blank but truer in many respects to the spirit of Stark’s hard-bitten freelancer (Stark/Westlake remarked that Robert Duvall, who is known as Earl Macklin instead of Parker in writer-director Flynn’s adaptation, conformed much more precisely to his conception of the character than Lee Marvin, Boorman’s choice for the vengeful protagonist). Flynn’s film is also fascinating for synthesizing many elements of traditional Forties and Fifties noir with a distinctly Seventies sensibility. This oscillation is played out literally in the casting. The leads—Duvall and Karen Black, who plays Parker’s anguished girlfriend Bett—are echt-Seventies actors. And without any hint of heavy-handed nostalgia or irony, grizzled noir veterans such as Robert Ryan and Timothy Carey play heavies, the always bug-eyed and ashen-faced Elisha Cook has a brilliant cameo as a befuddled bartender, and former femmes fatales Jane Greer and Marie Windsor make brief appearances in supporting roles.
The plot of Flynn’s film is actually, despite its apparent simplicity, more convoluted than Stark’s novel. The novel is a characteristically austere exercise in which Parker, enraged by being targeted by a hitman, embarks on a bloody series of heists across the country. Not without a certain code of honor, he remarks to a fellow thug, “You people go your way, I go mine.” Flynn, indebted to more traditional modes of narrative “emplotment,” provides Duvall’s Macklin with an elaborate backstory. After being released from prison, he goes into homicidal gear when he realizes that his brother has been killed for a robbery that inadvertently encroached upon the domain of “the outfit.” Vowing revenge, Parker sets his sights on the sinister goon Jake Menner (Timothy Carey as a psychotic henchman who’s practically foaming at the mouth) and then achieves a final showdown with powerful outfit boss Mailer (Robert Ryan).
Shot in gloriously drab Metrocolor by cinematographer Bruce Surtees, The Outfit is notable for capturing a series of bleak gas stations, motel rooms, and freeways with near-photorealist accuracy. Most of the characters are defined by an overweening sense of claustrophobia—as in classic noirs, there is literally “no way out.” Bett, Macklin’s reluctant moll, complains vociferously about the gloom of traipsing from one seedy motel room to another, while Mailer’s wife Rita (Joanna Cassidy) terms her ornate home a “mausoleum.” In one of the film’s most intricate set pieces, (and the only one drawn more or less faithfully from Stark’s novel) Macklin tries to purchase an appropriate getaway car from an automobile-infatuated mechanic as the wife of the latter’s brother (Sheree North) makes a futile attempt to seduce Macklin’s sidekick Cody (Joe Don Baker). Angered by this rebuff, she accuses Cody of attempted rape—presumably distraught that she cannot escape her dreary existence in rural California.
Released during the Watergate era, The Outfit’s delineation of a shadowy conspiracy featuring venial, rich men reflected the era’s understandably paranoid mood. And, despite the fact that there is nothing explicitly political about the film’s tenor, there are some subtle nods to the rebelliousness of the Sixties and early Seventies. In one of the film’s early scenes, a beret-clad Karen Black can’t help but remind film-savvy viewers of a low-rent version of Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker. And the final cataclysmic battle against Mailer and his gang, which ends with Duvall and Baker’s gleeful escape in a stolen ambulance, pays tribute to an anti-Establishment ethos more explicitly outlined in the films of Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, and Hal Ashby.
Richard Porton is an Editor at Cineaste as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.