Classic Corner: The Outfit

There’s something so satisfyingly sociopathic about Richard Stark’s lean and mean Parker novels. A thief unencumbered by conscience yet possessing a strict code of professional ethics, the character was the creation of author Donald E. Westlake, who wrote two dozen Parker paperbacks under the Stark pseudonym to distinguish the pared-down potboilers from his more playful capers. The books and their spartan, blunt-force prose read like screenplays waiting to happen. But Parker has had a surprisingly rocky road on movie screens, portrayed to limited degrees of success over the years under a host of contractually obligated alternate aliases by everyone from Peter Coyote and Jim Brown to Mel Gibson and Jason Statham. Most of them can’t help but try to soften the guy up a little bit. (Gibson even famously fired his director and reshot half of 1999’s Payback to make him less of a bastard. Imagine a character too unsympathetic to be played by Mel Gibson?)

The first of the books fared best, when 1962’s The Hunter was adapted five years later by director John Boorman into the dazzlingly prismatic, psychedelic masterpiece Point Blank. The artsiest B-movie ever made (I once described it as “if Alain Resnais had directed The Terminator”) this very loose adaptation finds Lee Marvin’s “Walker” seemingly returning from the grave after a botched heist to collect an old debt with a dead-eyed single-mindedness that spills over into surreal, sicko comedy. Point Blank is one of the great films of the 1960s, but Boorman’s freaky-deaky experimental flourishes are a far cry from the meat-and-potatoes pleasures of Stark’s novels. 

For those, you’re better off with The Outfit, writer-director John Flynn’s unassuming, coolly competent 1973 take on the third Parker book. This one stars Robert Duvall as “Earl Macklin,” a gruff heist guy fresh out of the joint who, along with his brother Eddie and their good-old-boy sidekick Cody (the great Joe Don Baker) made the mistake of robbing a bank that turned out to be a front for the mob. Now Eddie’s dead and there are contracts out on Earl and Cody. Our steely-eyed anti-hero decides that their only chance of squaring things with the syndicate is by stealing from them some more. Macklin figures that if he and Cody can become expensive enough pains in the ass, the outfit will eventually come to the conclusion that it’s cheaper and easier to just pay them off to go away. Hey, it beats sitting around waiting to get shot.

The plan is pure Parker, assuming that his adversaries are also businessmen who share his Vulcan-logic approach to the calculus of crime. But gangsters aren’t always good at doing math in their heads, especially when they’re hot under the collar  – even moreso when they’re played by legendary screen weirdo Timothy Carey, who heads a supporting cast of classic crime movie veterans including his The Killing co-stars Elisha Cook Jr. and Madge Windsor, as well as Out of the Past’s Jane Greer as Earl’s grieving sister-in-law. The big boss is played with marvelously exhausted menace by Robert Ryan in one of his final film appearances (he would be dead before the movie hit theaters); he’s had it up to here with the incompetence of his foot soldiers and the ungrateful grousing of his new trophy wife (Joanna Cassidy, in her big screen debut.) Poor sonofabitch just wants to watch the damn football game. 

What’s most enjoyable about The Outfit is the sparkling chemistry between the brusque, all-business Duvall and the grinning, shit-kicker antics of Joe Don Baker as his unruly sidekick. Karen Black is along for the ride as the emotionally remote Earl’s long-suffering girlfriend, and it’s easy to imagine her as if Rayette from Five Easy Pieces had found an even worse-for-her new beau after Jack Nicholson abandoned her at that gas station. Their little crime spree targeting outfit operations is really rather delightful, as the lackadaisically guarded cash businesses are staffed by blowhards incredulous that anyone would dare attempt to rob them in the first place. Duvall is clamped down and coiled like a cobra while big teddy bear Baker is expansive and gregarious. The latter basically steals the picture, lending his considerable, cherubic warmth to the sometimes too-cool proceedings.

Photographed by early Eastwood favorite Bruce Surtees, The Outfit has been assembled with an unfussy expertise that seemed like no great shakes to film critics 49 years ago, but feels like a lost art today. The smart location work alternates familiar urban crime story locales with more unexpected midwestern farmhouses and rolling hills. There’s a terrific suspense scene at a chop shop located out back behind a chicken coop, where a mechanic’s lonely wife (Don Siegel regular Sheree North) is trying to stir up trouble as the men go about their business. The sequence becomes a fraught negotiation staying just this side of a free-for-all. We’re watching seasoned professionals trying to do their jobs well with a minimum of muss and fuss, which is not just pure Parker but also an apt description of The Outfit itself.

“The Outfit” is streaming on HBO Max.

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