The Outfit (1973 USA)

FeelKhkJohn Flynn’s The Outfit starts with a weary, somewhat disgruntled guy getting let out of prison. Do these sorts of films start anywhere else? We like to see progression; the rather perverse notion of observing someone climb their way, immorally at that, through life by way of hijinks. I think that notion of bad vs. bad, or immoral vs. immoral is what draws us to these films. In this case, the subject matter is Donald Westlake’s 1963 novel; while the lead character on the verge of undertaking a dangerous journey is Robert Duvall’s Earl Macklin.

The Outfit is a film that deals with its somewhat wavy content in a decent manner but it cannot seem to push on to greatness, despite a wonderful premise for this sort of genre and some rather astute direction and acting. The film is about a man, the aforementioned Earl, seeing red following the death of his brother; a death he could not prevent nor be around to witness due to his own jail term. He takes it upon himself, with the aid of friend Cody (Baker) and partner Bettie Harrow (Black), to strike back at the titular Outfit; those responsible for his brother’s death. The plot is a damning demonization of crime and wrong-doing; in the sense the events would never had happened had Earl’s brother not robbed money from a bank housing the outfit’s money in the first place.

Earl’s situation is a precarious one; he robs money from a large criminal organization with his brother – who is then killed before he undertakes revenge because of this. This pushes Earl into that realm of the anti-hero. If we root for Earl, it’s either because the thought of suit-clad, big-shot criminals repel us, or, it’s because we think actor Robert Duvall is a cool guy, and wouldn’t mind seeing him win. On the other hand, the film takes on the weight to do with a dead sibling or family member acting as its lead’s chief drive; their past tragedy or motivational event. Here, they blend this awful happening, and combine it with a number of action set-pieces. A film that combines emotional trauma with a number of shoot outs and punch ups complete with a rather up-beat atmosphere is an odd thing.

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While I do think The Outfit is inconsistent in tone, it manages to just about straddle a line between dirty realism as one man plus friends take on a large organization. Plus out and out escapism as three gung-ho people go through the motions of earning some money. But you will needs to remind yourself that Earl has lost a brother; and that the pain is probably constant and sharp. Early on, the story gives us one of a number of really impressive scenes in which the lead; with gun and smart-talking, wise-cracking mouth at the ready, holds up a poker game between some mafioso big-wigs with the aim to raise some cash.

It’s a significant event, because it tells us of John Flynn’s ability to execute and deliver these sorts of scenes with punch. Later on, Earl and co. will rob an office controlled by the outfit for more money. The theft is controlled; the cinematic space of the office is negotiated by the characters in a quick but precise and very entertaining manner. Later on, an exchange deal in the middle of rural nowhere gets a bit heated and things are dealt with in pulpy fashion as unions and disagreements are built up to and played out. But as for everything else, most things happening around these incidences are quite interesting.

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Earl’s pain and suffering at the fact of his brother’s death is not touched on as much as I would’ve liked. Instead, we have banter with his buddy Cody, linked to how old they think they’re getting and that it’s remarkable how they’re getting away with all this. The friendship only very slightly threatens to push itself into a branch of the homo-erotic when Cody expresses his dissatisfaction, early on, at the fact Bett has to tag along for all these mis-adventures. Indeed, the final few shots of the film and Bett’s lack of presence tells us it was all about these two guys being reunited and doing what it is they do.

There is a lack of real, stone-wall antagonism in this supposedly hard-edged, pulp tale. I can understand the clear distinction of the rich, suit-wearing gangsters whom are driven around in limousines and gamble their money away for fun while the likes of Earl et al. are relegated to stealing it. The contrasting housing, clothes and lifestyle each ‘group’ are associated with gives the film an odd ‘rich vs. poor’ subtext. Additionally, if it is there; it really isn’t explored enough to warrant any major commendation though ultimately, The Outfit remains an enjoyable crime film by a director who had an eye for action and heist set-pieces.

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