John Flynn‘s The Outfit (1974), a brutally efficient bit of business based glancingly on Richard Stark’s procedurally inquisitive and poetic crime novel of the same name, is a movie that feels like it’s never heard of a rounded corner; it’s blunt like a 1970 Dodge Monaco pinning a couple of killers against a Dumpster and a brick wall. I say “glancingly” because the movie, as Glenn Kenny observed upon The Outfit’s DVD release from the Warner Archives, is based less on the chronologically unconcerned novel than an idea taken from it. On the page Stark’s protagonist, the unflappable Parker, his face altered by plastic surgery to the degree that past associates often take a fatal beat too long to realize to whom it is they are speaking, assumes the detached perspective of a bruised deity, undertaking the orchestration of a series of robberies administered to Mob-run businesses too arrogant to believe they could ever be so victimized. The bulk of the book is given over to microscopically precise accounts of these robberies, which occur with Parker’s approval and input but largely outside his presence. Parker is in many ways a ghostly figure floating through the criminal scenarios of his own devising.
The movie, however, through a mixture of Flynn’s no-frills approach and probable budgetary constraints (The Outfit was made for MGM during the austere reign of James Aubrey, who was far more interested in the burgeoning casino business than he was in making movies), is engagingly reductive. Robert Duvall is ostensibly the man Stark called Parker, here renamed Earl Macklin, who is released from prison and driven to a seedy motel by his girlfriend Bett (Karen Black in a functional role found in the opening passages of the book and here largely the creation of scenarist Flynn). Bett reveals to Macklin what we have already seen—his brother has been executed by two pistol-bearing Outfit thugs—and that she’s been strong-armed into setting Macklin up for similarly fatal treatment. Macklin gets the best of his would-be assassin, who reveals that Macklin is marked for death because the Wichita bank he and his brother robbed a few years prior, with the help of Macklin’s partner Cody (Joe Don Baker), was an Outfit operation. But rather than go into hiding, Macklin and Cody begin a series of knocks on similarly unprotected Mob fronts, robberies meant to collect the $250,000 Macklin figures he’s owed for his (and his brother’s) troubles, and shake the very foundations of the organization. Substituting headlong, arrogant force for the mapped-out strategies detailed in the book, Flynn pile-drives forward just like his protagonist, setting up one cast-iron set piece after another in clean, broad strokes, an approach as cinematically equivalent to Stark’s lean, unfussy prose as one could imagine being without the director galloping forward into insufferable self-consciousness.
It’s easy to wonder if those probable budgetary restrictions had anything to do with Flynn’s scrapping of the idea to film The Outfit as a full-on noir period piece set in the postwar ‘40s. Personally, I think what we’ve got works just fine, probably better than any attempt to predate even the novel and recreate a shadowy atmosphere which would likely only call attention to its artificiality. As is, The Outfit, set in 1973, is only 10 years removed from the cars, the styles, the guns, the diners and the entire milieu of Stark’s novel, which was published in 1963. Not much in the way of adaptation in terms of production design was really needed to stay true to the cynicism-soaked atmosphere originating from Stark’s typewriter.
The one conceit that seems held over from that plan is the casting of several icons of film noir in various roles, both of the central and cameo varieties. In addition to its terrific main cast (Duvall, Baker and Black), The Outfit gives a good role (one of his last) to Robert Ryan, veteran of scores of great appearances in noirs as varied as Act of Violence and The Set-up. But also be on the lookout for appearances by Elisha Cook Jr. (Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, Born to Kill), Roy Roberts (Force of Evil, He Walked by Night), Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin, Force of Evil, The Killing) and the great Jane Greer (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). The presence of these faces, aged but recognizable and very welcome, is an exceedingly nice touch, a tip of the fedora to the kinds of movies to which The Outfit is inextricably connected which never becomes either an oversized distraction or an embarrassing gesture of self-congratulation.
Flynn’s is the kind of adaptation that often ruffles the feathers of those who are too concerned with absolute fidelity to the source material, yet it maintains a tonal consistency with Stark, even as it parts ways with his methods, that honors the spirit of what this great crime writer was up to. If I’m not mistaken, there’s only one scene from Stark’s book that retains its shape and structure in translation to the movie, and it’s a corker. On the page, Parker heads out to a farm to trade his car, shot up and made by gangsters while burning rubber away from a hit on an Outfit money-laundering operation, for a less conspicuous model. There he encounters the mechanic who will negotiate the trade, the mechanic’s brother and that brother’s wife, who falsely accuses Parker of rape in order to rile the anger of her husband, whom she hopes Parker will kill. The set piece works in the book as a welcome yet conventional bit of action, a break from the stylistic consideration of the mechanics of criminal behavior, and to keep Parker, the first-person narrator, from becoming too solitary a character, to slow down his positioning as the narrative’s fully detached yet omnipresent overseer.
But Flynn rejiggers the scene slightly, bringing Macklin (Parker) onto the scene with Cody, and he’s cast the scene for maximum juice—Richard Jaeckel is the hard-assed but honorable mechanic, Bill McKinney in yet another of his dangerous backwoods psycho characterizations as the mechanic’s too-volatile brother, and the peerlessly voluptuous Sheree North, first in a knockout black turtleneck sweater and then in a clingy, pointedly thin bathrobe, as the brother’s shrewish, accusatory wife. It’s a terrific scene—she propositions Cody instead of Macklin (Parker) here, but the result is the same, a deep-woods driveway version of a Mexican standoff that functions as an opportunity to stage a bit of fisticuffs, gun play and sultry sexuality with actors who are more than game for a good time, even if it only lasts one scene.
The Outfit is a movie that could possibly be mistaken as almost tossed off, so inconspicuous is Flynn’s directorial hand. It’s true that Flynn favors a blunt-edged camera style which borders on no style at all, but the movie is artfully assembled nonetheless. The images, shot by Bruce Surtees, have a brisk purity in their utilization of found urban environments; conversely, the movie’s use of the rural disarray surrounding Macklin’s dead brother’s home, offset by foreboding overcast skies, is simple yet evocative. The movie sets up a contrast between the sunlit grit of criminal streets and the grey skies overseeing the boondock landscapes of the have-nots that is expressive without ever being obvious. And it’s all put together with a slam-bang absence of ostentation by Oscar-winning film editor Ralph E. Winters (Ben-Hur), who knows his way around conveying the weight of vehicles and the heavy metal .45-caliber pop of a scrubbed handgun. The result is a snub-nosed picture with the kind of style that heats up without making a show of cranking the temperature. It belongs to the film noir tradition as a movie lacking the very self-conscious moves which might insist upon its placement within that tradition. But The Outfit also feels like a movie of its time, tough, nasty, amoral, of a piece with the best of Don Siegel’s early ‘70s crime films, just as the films noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s, great and not-so-great, were anchored in theirs. There’s honor in temporal certitude like that, in this tale of bad guys taking it out on guys who are even worse, even as the film looks over its shoulder every once in a while to cast a glance at the great, ambiguously dark shadows of the past.
NOIR ICONS THEN AND NOW
Timothy Carey, The Killing (1956), The Outfit (1974)
Elisha Cook Jr., The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Outfit (1974)
Jane Greer, Out of the Past (1947), The Outfit (1974)
Roy Roberts (left), Force of Evil (1951), The Outfit (1974)
Robert Ryan, Act of Violence (1948), The Outfit (1974)
Marie Windsor, The Narrow Margin (1952), The Outfit (1974)
The Outfit is available on DVD from Warner Archives and makes an occasional appearance on Turner Classic Movies, as it did last month for the channel’s month-long tribute to Robert Ryan. It was that showing which prompted the posting of this article, only slightly revised here from the original version published at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on February 21, 2011.