The third instalment of my series on Parker on the screen is the 1973 film, The Outfit, written and directed by John Flynn, based on the 1963 Donald Westlake novel of the same name (one of three Parker novels Westlake wrote under the Richard Stark pseudonym that year, the others being The Man with the Getaway Face and The Mourner).
The book opens with a botched hit on Parker while he is enjoying one of his post-job trysts. It forces the professional thief to come to the conclusion that he needs to settle his ongoing feud with the shadowy crime organisation known as the Outfit once and for all. He puts word out through his various criminal networks that the unofficial underworld truce with the Outfit is over and it is now fair game. What follows is a series of independently run operations as various freelance criminal groups start hitting the organisation’s money-making activities while Parker goes after its leader, a man named Bronson. It has been a while since I read The Outfit, but I remember thinking it was definitely one of the better Parker novels.
The film starts with a hit on a man working on a remote farm. Next we see Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) getting out of jail where he has been doing a stint for carrying a concealed firearm (a scene very reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s release from jail in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway a year earlier). He is met outside by his long suffering girlfriend, Bett (Karen Black). They go to a motel, where Bett informs him that his brother, the man killed at the beginning of the film, is dead. But aside from the difficulty of having to deliver this bad news, she is unusually tense and visibly uneasy to be back in his company.
It transpires that, under duress, Bett has set Macklin up at the motel to be killed by the Outfit. Macklin swiftly deals with the would be assassin and strong arms the man into revealing he was sent by an Outfit lieutenant called Jenner (Timothy Carey). After getting the killer to phone Jenner and tell him the hit was a success – thus giving Macklin some space to move freely – he kicks the assassin loose. Then he drives straight to Jenner’s location, a mob card game in a big hotel, gets past the second-rate security detail, robs the game and braces Jenner for the reason his brother and now him are targets. Jenner reveals that a Kansas bank that Macklin and his brother had robbed in the past was in fact an Outfit front. “You know how it is,” sneers Jenner. “You hit us. We hit you.” Macklin tells Jenner that he’s owned $250,000 from the Outfit for the trouble they have caused him, then shoots the gangster point blank in the hand, and leaves.
Macklin teams up with a former criminal associate, Cody (Joe Don Baker) and together they start robbing various Outfit fronts, with Bett acting as their reluctant wheelwoman. At one point, Macklin confronts the head of Outfit, an elderly gangster called Mailer (Robert Ryan), and offers him a truce if Mailer will pay him his money. Mailer agrees but immediately goes back on the deal, resulting in Macklin and Cody ratcheting up their operation against the Outfit, concluding with a final confrontation at Mailer’s heavily guarded mansion.
In an interview while he was still alive (which you can see in full here), Westlake describes Duvall’s Macklin as “perhaps the closest to the Parker” as the author had envisaged him. Flynn told one interviewer, he was a fan of the Westlake/Stark books and the character of Parker, who he described as “an armed robbery technician who doesn’t crack jokes”. Flynn directed sixteen films in a career that spanned 1968 to 2001, most of which I haven’t seen. But they included two I have, the Vietnam blowback vigilante take, Rolling Thunder (1977), and one of the more underrated American crime films of the 1980s, Best Seller (1987). My point being that Flynn had chops when it came to doing a decent crime film.
Duvall nails the taciturn, largely humourless, at times brutal professional criminal that Parker is on the page. What I noticed on this viewing was the similarity between this performance and the role of Tom Hagen, the mob consigliere he played in The Godfather a year earlier. His performance is just one of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to The Outfit’s cast: Baker, Richard Jaeckel, and a who is who of film noir talent, including Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor (as the shady hotel owner, Madge, who hooks Macklin up with other criminals), Jane Greer (as Macklin’s brother’s widow), and Henry Jones (as a shady mortuary attendant).
Black is good, as she pretty much always was, as Bett, desperately unhappy in her relationship with her emotionally stunted ex-con, borderline abusive boyfriend. Her death in an Outfit ambush on a deserted stretch of highway, targeting Macklin and Cody, towards the end of the film is pretty brutal but, to be fair, that’s how it would’ve come across in one of Westlake’s books. And, of course, there’s Ryan, his third last film of a lengthy career, as Mailer; disgusted that a couple of small-time heist guys can run rings around the large, sophisticated operation he has helped build, and even more disgusted he has to surround himself with goons he so obviously despises for protection. And, although she does not have a big part, you can also notice Joanna Cassidy (the android, Zhora, in 1982’s Bladerunner), as Mailer’s feisty younger trophy wife.
The look and feel of this film are also great, a semi-abandoned world of shitty motels, greasy spoon diners, and dingy bars, swathed in grey skies and wood panelling. It is very similar to a number of early 1970s crime films (think The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and a marked contrast to the garish, psychedelic vibe of Point Blank and the sunshine noir of The Split. The script also captures the Westlake’s prose. Scenes like Macklin’s brother’s widow telling him, “I wish it was you and not him”.
The Outfit is not perfect. I don’t think the tone of what is essentially a bromance between Cody and Macklin rings true and the ending feels perfunctory and far too comedic – apparently MGM insisted Flynn make changes to the final scenes to make it more upbeat. Overall, however, it is a solid neo-noir that is also open to wider interpretations. As the Cineaste review out it: ‘Released during the Watergate era, The Outfit’s delineation of a shadowy conspiracy featuring venial, rich men reflected the era’s understandably paranoid mood. And, despite the fact that there is nothing explicitly political about the film’s tenor, there are some subtle nods to the rebelliousness of the Sixties and early Seventies.’
I know a lot of people think The Outfit is the most faithful screen adaption of Parker. Westlake certainly thought so. But as I have stressed in previous posts, I’m not going to get overly preoccupied with the depiction of Parker on the screen compared to the books. I also believe that all the Parker adaptations I have watched so far capture something essential about their source material. This is something I’ll talk more about in future posts.
Next up, Slayground (1983).