BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE OUTFIT

By • Dec 30th, 2011 •

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It’s a cold, sun-streaked morning somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas. Two men, the brown suede and red plaid of their hunting caps uncharacteristically store-bought shiny for this out of the way place, walk into a worn, rough-hewn diner. An elderly man, bent-over, with wisps of stray white hair across his weathered scalp, carries a none too clean coffee pot their way. It’s Elijah Cook, Jr., fragile and scrawny, but the glint in his eyes is the same as when he kicked Humphrey Bogart in the head in THE MALTESE FALCON. We expect something to happen, possibly wild and unpredictable, but no, the hunters sit at the counter and ask for Cody, the owner of the place. In walks Joe Don Baker with a slight smile on his face, his good-old-boy demeanor positively disarming. “Can’t seem to place you boys,” he says. He goes behind the counter, grabs the largest knife and begins slicing a loaf of bread.

“We know some friends of yours,” the hunter in the suede cap says. “Old friends.” In the low light at the back of the diner, film grain dances like motes of light on the surface of a lake. Photographed by Bruce Surtees, who brought a dangerous beauty to films such as DIRTY HARRY, the image is so sharp, one can read the menu clearly in the distance: “Hamburger – 60 cents.”

“It’s always nice to hear from old friends,” Joe Don Baker says. He points to the hunters’ rifles standing in the corner. “Going quail hunting?”

“Sure. Quail.” Through the window, one can see a hillock of green suffused by shadows, like a brush stroke by Monet.

Cautiously, Joe Don Baker lifts the blade of the knife, holding it firm. “You boys are too late. You got to get up early when they’re feeding…if you want birds. Besides, your guns are too big. Twelve gauge would tear a bird apart.”

“Is that right?” One of the hunters picks up the rifle and points the barrels at Joe Don Baker. Still behind the counter, his smile darkens a little. One thinks of William Conrad and Charles McGraw waiting for Burt Lancaster in the small town diner in the opening scene of THE KILLERS, the other patrons enveloped in a sense of dread, but then suddenly everything changes.

“Want to know about guns, you ask Bob Caswell there, the Sheriff. He knows all about guns. Don’t you Bob?”

A middle-aged man in a cowboy hat and a Santa Claus moustache sitting by the window grins. “That’s the truth.”

The sunlight streams through the window as the hunters abruptly take their rifles and open the door to leave. “You know something, Cody,” suede cap says. “You ought to play the races. You’re that lucky.”

I wanted to try to give you a feeling of what watching this movie and this lovely transfer is all about. THE OUTFIT (1973), a made on demand disc of impressive quality and delicate, film-like characteristics, is the best looking DVD from Warner Archive I’ve yet come across. It also turns out, much to my surprise, to be a movie for the ages. An astonishing compendium of seventies grunge with fifties’ tough-guy actors (such as Robert Ryan and the legendary cult figure Timothy Carey), THE OUTFIT is a terse, brutal, yet surprisingly lyrical adaptation of the second Richard Stark paperback novel featuring Parker, a workaday criminal. While the story and characters have been slightly changed – Parker, for instance becomes Macklin and is given a girlfriend wheelman, something Parker himself would never condone while on a job – the stoic matter of factness and unadorned low rent background of a life outside the law described in the books is tone perfect.

Presenting the adventures of a lone wolf bank robber who is being chased by the mob and decides instead of running to fight back and rob the big boys, the film is filled with the kind of small, telling details found in the Parker books: a hired gun who crosses himself before a hit, the carny-like sales pitch, warm-hearted yet cagey, of an illegal firearms merchant, or an unsubtle shade of pink neon that bathes the cabins of a budget motor camp in a garish glow, imparting a carnival ambience to a scene of violence.

Produced in 1973 when former CBS wonder boy James Aubrey (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES) was in the process of leaching out the glory of MGM into nothingness, THE OUTFIT fell through the cracks and was poorly distributed. It turned up once on a double bill with THE SPLIT, an anomie-ridden James Brown caper film, in a run-down theatre in Crown Heights, but I didn’t make it in time. I must say that this film was well worth the wait. In fact, if this movie had been promoted properly, I think it would have been a hit, for it’s head and shoulders above much more prestigious action films of the same period staring Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. Like a stripped-down pro on a bank job, THE OUTFIT focuses on the matter at hand, yet every step along the way resonates.

Paradoxically, this disc has some of the most gorgeously saturated color I’ve ever seen in a 70’s film, as if the director, going for the visceral attack of Film Noir, decided to use the color palette of THE SOUND OF MUSIC for the sake of contrast. Yet somehow it all works. The action is pared-down and unsentimental, the consciousness as straightforward as the hammer locking in a Colt .45, and the stunning beauty of the images, rather than weighing down the narrative, stings like salt on the rim of a margarita glass.

The Parker novels came at the end of a Noir cycle of original paperbacks, the stories doom-laden and decidedly baroque in style, featuring rot-gut heroes at death’s door, written by such masters of the genre as David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Charles Wileford. The Parker novels signaled a changed in tone as the anxiety-ridden 50’s turned into the free-wheeling 60’s, focusing on the small details of assembling a team of criminals for a robbery, written in a laid-back ironic prose that was also capable of great subtleties. Richard Stark was actually Donald Westlake, a writer of comic caper novels such as The Hot Rock that were quite different in style. Once a friend complained that Donald Westlake should write more like Richard Stark. I told this comment to another friend that knew Westlake, and reported back that Westlake was quite amused by the comparison.

To say that Robert Duvall is perfect in the role of the robber Macklin is almost faint praise. He inhabits the character, fuses his skin and his every breath with Macklin’s unique contradictions, makes the character come alive to the extent that every fiber of Mr. Duvall’s being seems to exist in the slowly pulsing film grain that moves the narrative forward and which the technicians at Warner Archive have so wonderfully preserved in this marvelous transfer. The rest of the cast is equally impeccable. Joe Don Baker as Cody, Macklin’s partner, compliments Robert Duvall’s brooding intensity with an unimpeachable affableness that hides a sharp instinct for sensing the danger inherent in every situation. John Flynn, the director and screenwriter, has also cast a compendium of character actors that through their mere presence evokes an entire universe of cinematic feeling: Richard Jaeckel (ATTACK), Sheree North (THE UNTOUCHABLES), Marie Windsor (FORCE OF EVIL), Jane Greer (OUT OF THE PAST), Henry Jones (VERTIGO), and Emil Meyer (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS). I must also reserve special praise for Karen Black, who as Macklin’s girlfriend Bett, takes what could have been a stereotyped role and transforms this into the emotional core of the film. Although I love Karen Black as a personality, I’ve never known her to play a part with such simplicity or transparency of feeling before.

By eliciting a performance of such verisimilitude, Mr. Flynn remains true not only to Richard Stark’s sense of realism, but also evokes crime author Jim Thompson’s vision of sublimely complicated women, which has not been at all well served by the cinema. In the film versions of such Thompson novels as The Grifters and The Getaway, while the fairly simplistic plots are retained, the complicated characters which make these books memorable are mostly excised. It is to Mr. Flynn’s credit that while THE OUTFIT is a beautifully made genre piece, full of moody characterization and tough action, what remains in the mind are the emotionally complex relations of the characters adrift in a world of violence.

A film that successfully builds on the rootless, road-movie style of FIVE EASY PIECES while incorporating the gritty ambience of such morally ambiguous Noirish thrillers as THE KILLING and KISS ME DEADLY, John Flynn’s THE OUTFIT is not only a continually impressive piece of filmmaking, but a stunningly produced disc of any stripe and should be in the collection of all serious movie lovers.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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