The Good Lord invented the Warner Archives specifically for a title like “The Outfit,” one of those gritty, stripped-down, hard-boiled under-rated crime dramas from the ’70s that you’ve probably never heard of but never forget upon seeing.
Fascinating anti-heroes out for revenge in a seedy world filled with low-level gangsters where the police hardly seem to exist might not sound like the stuff of artistry, but there is a true artistry to this very specific genre which also includes, “Point Blank, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” “Charley Varrick,” “The Silent Partner,” “Shaft,” and “White Lightning.” But for my money, “The Outfit” is among the best of them.
The story opens with the cold-blooded assassination of a seemingly innocent man and at the hands of two stone-faced shooters. His only crime — at least in this film’s subculture where most crime is acceptable — is that a couple of years ago he and his brother unknowingly robbed a bank run by the mob aka The Outfit. The brother is Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) a hard case who’s just out of jail for a weapons charge. Upon release, Macklin hooks up with an old girlfriend, Bett (Karen Black), and quickly discovers that his brother was murdered, and that he’s next.
Because Macklin is smarter than the average thug and much more resourceful, he quickly turns the tables on The Outfit. With the help of his loyal partner, Cody (a superb Joe Don Baker), Macklin makes what he considers to be a reasonable offer: Pay me a quarter of a million dollars to compensate for the killing of my brothe,r or I’m going to keep knocking over your operations until it all comes falling down. The offer is sincere, but you get the sense Macklin never expects the deal to be accepted and that he prefers it that way.
Eventually things will lead to the top man, Mailer (Robert Ryan), a brutal, aging, and unhappy mob boss who obviously used violence to work his way up, because he has no clue as to how to handle a man like Macklin. He’s certainly not going to give him any money, even though the amount Macklin’s asking for is what The Outfit brings in every day before lunch.
Duvall is quietly superb and restrained while carrying the picture, and the script, based on a novel by Donald Westlake (writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark), keeps the story simple and the small moments richly textured and fascinating. There’s an endless supply of beautiful touches that bring scenes and the supporting characters within them fully to life. Things like the assassin who asks Macklin for a handkerchief or a request to be hit on left side “because I have a bad right ear.”
The film’s best sequence, though, hardly moves the plot at all. It takes place at a muddy, rural farmhouse. Macklin needs information and a fast hot car. The men in charge are Chemey (Richard Jaekel) and Buck (Bill McKinney). Though introductions are at first tense due to a natural wariness among those who make their living outside the law, eventually the tension eases, at least until Buck’s over-sexed wife (the fabulous Sheree North) propositions an unwilling Cody. Like a pin pulled from a grenade, things go from zero to deadly in an instant, all of it ramped up by a barking dog.
Beautiful, beautiful moviemaking.
Though the story and action suitably hold your attention, it’s the world director John Flynn (who seemed to specialize in under-appreciated revenge gems available only through DVD on-demand — see also: “Rolling Thunder,” “Defiance“) creates that holds your fascination. Every hotel room, car, and exterior location is rich with detail. The same goes for the characters who tick with the kinds of contradictions that make perfect sense.
The violence in “The Outfit” is sudden, startling and matter-of-fact — and therefore effective. Best of all, everything makes sense. Nothing that moves the story or puts Macklin where he should or shouldn’t be is in any way contrived. This is a perfect piece of genre film making with a simple, cool, tightly wound plot that works because of attention to detail and the willingness of the director and actors to get out of the way and just tell the story.
There’s nothing remotely flashy or auteurish about the direction, score, dialogue, or performances. Tonally, everything is spare, economical, controlled, and workmanlike — just like the characters. And from that kind of disciplined artistry came a very unique, effective, and appreciated “style.” Some call it neo-noir but it’s even more of a sub-genre thanks to the style and feel of the late sixties and early-seventies that will never be recaptured — and that style is in top form in “The Outfit.”
A very special bonus offered by “The Outfit” comes from Flynn offering up a supporting cast that’s a feast for 40’s and 50’s noir fans. Reunited from Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1955) are Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, and Timothy Carey. All have small but memorable roles, as does Jane Greer from “The Big Steal” (1949) and “Out of the Past” (1947) .
And while you’re at it, make “The Outfit” a double feature with Don Siegel’s “Charley Varrick,” which came out the same year and reunites Joe Don Baker and Sheree North in two completely different roles.
“The Outfit” is available for purchase at the Warner Archives.