I first saw The Outfit one Sunday night about thirty years ago on the local ABC affiliate, which ran old movies after the late news. I was a film major at the University of Maryland at the time. Back then there were fewer sources of film information (no internet, no IMDB), so if you had prior knowledge of a movie it was from movie-freak conversations or it came out of a book. A couple of years earlier, same program, same station, I had seen Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly for the first time, and was blown away. Watching The Outfit, I had a similar response: I was watching an undiscovered gem. And then the movie disappeared. No further TV screenings that I was aware of (I missed the middle-of-the-night AMC sightings), no ancillary releases outside of a cheap, short-lived VHS tape. Until now. The Outfit has recently come out on DVD from the Warner Brothers Archives Collection. It’s not currently available as a rental, so you’ll have to shell out for a copy. If your tastes run to 70’s crime films, it’s well worth the money.
The Outfit is based on a Donald Westlake novel, written as Richard Stark. If you’re reading this, you know all about the Parker novels written by Stark. Needless to say, I am a big fan. Westlake had a very smart agent who sold his books to the movies many times, with the condition that the character of Parker not be named Parker in the films. With this rule in place, no one studio or producer could own the series, and multiple films could be made from the source material. So in the films Parker is alternately named Walker (Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s masterpiece, Point Blank, based on The Hunter), McClain (Jim Brown in The Split), Porter (Mel Gibson in the phony, awful Payback), and, in Slayground, Stone, played by Peter Coyote. (I am omitting two French films, one of which was Godard’s Made in U.S.A., which starred Anna Karina; for more information, check out the website “The Violent World of Parker”).
In The Outfit, adapted for the screen and directed by John Flynn, Parker is named Macklin, and he is played by Robert Duvall. Though Lee Marvin most physically resembles the rawboned, loose-limbed man described in the opening pages of The Hunter, Duvall is, in his own compact, tight-lipped way, also a fine Parker embodiment. While Boorman’s Point Blank is a wildly imaginative, uber-cinematic head-fuck of a film, The Outfit most closely replicates the flat, hard, all-business tone of the Parker books. Westlake himself once said that Flynn’s version is the closest translation of Parker to film.
The plot is rudimentary; we’ve seen it many times before. Macklin robbed a bank with his brother and an accomplice, Cody (Joe Don Baker, kickass cool, as always). They didn’t know they had stolen Mob money. Macklin’s brother is murdered by button men, on orders of kingpin Mailer (the great Robert Ryan, in his final role before cancer claimed him). When Macklin is released from prison, he and Cody go after the Mob to reclaim their money (In Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, which has a similar central plot, the Mafia is after Charley, who’s on the run; here. Macklin is the predator.) What unspools is an episodic trail of conflict and confrontation (basically, a series of hit-and-run robberies) between Macklin’s team (Cody and Bett, Macklin’s girlfriend, played by Karen Black) and a host of extraordinary character actors, pugilists (Archie Moore) and real-life thugs, leading to a climatic assault on Mailer’s compound.
Flynn’s style is of the TV-lighting, standard-setup school (master shot, two-shot, over-the-shoulder, tighter, tighter, etc.) and unflashy. Locations are real, not sets, and look like the working class and out-of-work America of 1973. The style fits the material. The dialogue is clipped, straight to the point, and musical, if jazz is your music. You have the scene of the men buying black market firearms. You have pump-action shotguns, .38s, .357 Mags, and silencers. You have beautiful, braless women (Miss Black, Sheree North—good God—and Joanna Cassidy) in full bounty. You have the scene where our anti-heroes pick out their hot, hopped up Mopars (The Dirty Dozen’s Richard Jaeckel as the coveralled mechanic, The Outlaw Josey Wales’ Bill McKinney as his half-wit, cuckolded brother). You have Elisha Cook Jr. behind the counter and Jane Greer (Out of the Past) behind the stick. And you have cinematography by Bruce Surtees and music by Jerry Fielding. The stars could be no better aligned.
Want to know what this film is all about? Check out the sequence where Macklin robs a hotel card game. Macklin first pistol-clips Al (Roy Jenson), the guy guarding the door (“Make it to the left side, will ya, I got a bad right ear”) then breaks into the room and takes the players off, confronting a mobbed-up vulgarian named Menner (a reliably nutty Timothy Carey), who earlier had tortured Bett by burning her inner forearm repeatedly with a lit cigar. Menner explains the setup to Macklin, and the audience, poetically: “You hit a bank. You and your brother and a guy called Cody, before your stretch. Midwest National in Wichita. The Outfit owns it. So you know how it is: you hit us, we hit you.” Before Macklin leaves the room with his money, he says, “You shouldn’t use a girl’s arm for an ashtray,” and puts a silenced round through Menner’s hand.
If this is your sort of thing, The Outfit belongs on your shelf. John Flynn directed two of my favorite pictures: The Outfit and Rolling Thunder (1977). He is largely forgotten today. It will cost you thirty bucks for two to see the latest bullshit actioner at your local theater. For half of that, you can own this classic, and watch it again and again.
George Pelecanos is the author of several bestselling novels set in and around Washington D.C. He is also an independent-film producer, an essayist, the recipient of numerous international writing awards, and a producer of the HBO hit series The Wire. He currently writes for the Emmy-nominated writer of the HBO series Treme.
His newest novel WHAT IT WAS is available as an ebook for only 99 cents for one month only. A trade paperback edition is also available at $9.99, as well as a knockout of a limited edition hardcover signed by George.