Donald E. Westlake (under the byline Richard Stark) wrote 24 novels about hard-bitten criminal Parker. Many of the Parker books have been adapted into films, but for some reason, none of these films have ever used the name "Parker" for their protagonists. In John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), Lee Marvin was called "Walker"; Jim Brown was "McClain" in The Split (1968); Peter Coyote was "Stone" in Slayground (1983), and Mel Gibson was "Porter" in Payback (1999). There was even a female incarnation of Parker: Anna Karina played "Paula Nelson" in Jean-Luc Godard's Made in USA (1966). Who knows why the various filmmakers decided to change the main character's name from Parker; perhaps they didn't want a hint of any connection to the other (rival studio) films? Or perhaps they were just continuing the tried-and-true Hollywood policy of reckless disregard for the source material. In any case, The Outfit (based off the 3rd Parker novel) continued this trend, with Robert Duvall as Earl Macklin, fresh out of prison and targeted for a hit by the Mob.
The movie opens with Macklin's brother Ed shot down at his rural farmhouse by two Mafia hitmen. Macklin gets released from the pen and is picked up by his girlfriend, Bett Harrow (Karen Black, often wearing the sort of cap that makes her resemble Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde). Bett takes Macklin to a motel but is clearly nervous and flighty about something. She confesses to Macklin that she was tortured and strong-armed by mid-level mob boss Menner into setting Macklin up for a hit. He's able to get the jump on his would-be assassin, slamming a glass ashtray into the guy's face and demanding to know, "Who fingered me?"
Turns out that several year's back, Macklin, his brother Ed and their partner Cody (Joe Don Baker) robbed a bank that was a front for the Mob (a.k.a. "the Outfit"). Word got back to big boss Mailer (Robert Ryan) and so a contract was put out on the three men. Macklin's not happy about this and decides to squeeze the Outfit for $250,000 in damages. With Bett in tow, he gets together with Cody and they begin a systematic shake down of various Mob-owned joints, gumming up the syndicate works and stealing every Mob dollar they come across. When it becomes clear that Mailer has no intention of paying them off, Macklin and Cody decide to take it to the mat. And as Westlake fans know, it doesn't pay to piss off Parker...
Karen Black as the put-upon girlfriend, Bett.
This a stripped-down, nuts-and-bolts crime drama presented in that flat, realistic style so typical of the 1970s. No melodramatics, no flashy style, just hard, laconic men and world-weary, seen-it-all-before women scrabbling for what they can get in a grimy criminal underworld.
As far as screen depictions of Parker go, I'm partial to Payback, which is lean and mean but also full of dark humor. Point Blank is too self-consciously arty for my tastes, though Lee Marvin is great in it. The Outfit is quite a bit more low-key than either of those better known films, but is still a very respectable take on the character, and its gritty, naturalistic tone feels just right.
Robert Duvall keeps it tight and mean as Macklin. It's clear he knows his way around a score, and the movie is full of moments where he makes it clear he's sized up all the angles and is well-prepared to deal with them. Duvall portrays an interesting kind of hard-ass here; it's clear Macklin is a working-class sort of criminal, who has a certain respect for those who do the grunt work. He tries his best not to kill any of the "soldiers" if he doesn't have to (though he still clocks up a sizable body count). He's cold and efficient, and if he can get what he wants by pistol whipping or cold-cocking some goon, he'll take that route. He saves his ire for those who fingered him, the corporate bigwigs like Menner and Mailer. Duvall has given so many authentic performances in his career (none better than as Augustus "Gus" McCrea in the western miniseries Lonesome Dove), and this yet another one. Macklin is not a colorful, larger-than-life character like Gus; instead he's a stripped-down, all-business badass, serious and committed.
Joe Don Baker lightens the mood a bit as the more gregarious, but almost as dangerous, Cody. A big bear of a man, Baker is always an equally big screen presence, and his louder, brasher persona meshes well with Duvall's quiet intensity. The two make for a fine team of revenge seekers, and more time and care is spent on their buddy relationship than the one between Macklin and Bett.
Karen Black does good work, but the focus here is on Macklin's fight against the Mob, and calling their relationship a "romance" seems a bit of a stretch. Usually, she's stuck pouting about the unenviable situation she's found herself in; since she's warned Macklin about the hit, she's also on the Outfit's rub-out list. She's forced to tag along with Macklin, and she's none too thrilled about the way things are going for her, spending most of the day holed up in some crummy motel room, wondering if Macklin's going to come back in one piece, or come back at all. Black has one standout scene, when a fed-up and distraught Bett calls her father and asks to come home. The look on her face, as daddy tells her there's no room for her there, is heartbreaking.
Menner (Timothy Carey) gives Macklin the death stare.
The rest of the cast is peopled by familiar faces, many whose names people won't recognize but which have graced many a gangster or crime flick. All the mafia types are spot-on casting. As far as the name supporting cast goes, Robert Ryan brings some class as the big boss and chief bad guy. Mailer has the requisite hot young wife (JoBeth Williams) and it becomes a sort of running joke how nearly every line he says to her is "Shut up."
Richard Jaekel, Sheree North, Bill McKinney, Marie Windsor, Jane Greer, and Elisha Cook Jr. all turn up in small roles. Timothy Carey, who made a career out of playing malevolent creeps and heavies, is all gravelly-voiced, fish-eyed, baggy-faced menace as Menner. He's terrific, if underused.
I'm not familiar with director John Flynn's work other than the cult revenge film Rolling Thunder (1977). His direction in The Outfit is straightforward, clean, no frills, with a bare minimum of artsy shots. Like many of these 70s crime films, The Outfit is an unpretentious thriller with greater emphasis on character, mood and story. There's some nice action here and there, but the main excitement lies in seeing how Macklin and Cody go about taking on the big guns of the syndicate. They're up against some extreme odds, and real suspense builds over whether or not they'll come out of this alive. Those who like their crime dramas spare and tough are encouraged to check this one out.
(Addendum: Hollywood finally decided to use Westlake's actual character name in 2013's Parker, starring Jason Statham).
DVD Note: As you can tell from the above screen caps, the Japanese DVD of The Outfit is fullscreen rather than the original 1:85:1. Not only is the transfer pretty murky and soft, but the Japanese subtitles are burned in. There's a Warner Archive DVD-R of the film that appears to be remastered and widescreen; that's the version to get.
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