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The Parker Films: The Outfit (1973)

September 14th, 2020
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I’m continuing continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker character.  Click here for my review of 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, an adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunted.  Click here for my review of 1968’s The Split, starring Jim Brown.  Now we come to 1973’s The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall!

The Outfit is based on the Westlake novel of the same name.  Robert Duvall plays the Parker role, though once again they don’t call the character Parker — in this film, he’s Earl Macklin.  After getting released from prison, Macklin discovers his brother has been killed, and he only narrowly escapes the hitman hired to kill him.  It seems the bank that the brothers robbed was an operation run by the Outfit, the nickname given to a large criminal organization.  (Back in Point Blank, they called it the Syndicate.)  So Macklin recruits his old comrade in crime Cody (Joe Don Baker) and starts hitting one Outfit operation after another in a quest for retribution, as well as the quarter million he feels he’s owed for his trouble.

I enjoyed The Outfit, mostly for the fun of seeing the young, virile Robert Duvall and Joe Don Baker in their primes!  But the film is a step down in quality, in my opinion, from Point Blank and The Split.  It’s a little shaggier, a little less tense, a little less compelling.

The overwrought soundtrack hurts the film.  It’s too on the nose.  For example: right off the bat, the film opens with super-dramatic music playing over shots of a car driving.  The music makes it seem like a Big Dramatic Moment, but nothing is really happening.   It’s off-putting.  Only a few minutes later, we see Macklin getting out of prison and there’s extremely cliche harmonica music playing on the soundtrack, and I knew we were in trouble.

Robert Duvall is always great, and it’s fun to see him in a man-of-action leading roll.  I wish the script gave him more depth of character to play.  It worked for Lee Marvin (and also Jim Brown) to play mostly silent tough guys, but the Macklin character is less compelling.  Part of this is the fault of the weak script, but also I think Duvall is the wrong actor for this type of role.  I know he’s so good, that watching the film I kept wishing he had more meaty stuff to play.  But that being said, even in a mediocre film, Duvall elevates the material.  He’s magnetic on screen.

Also great: Joe Don Baker!  To be honest, I’ve often found his persona to be something of a joke to me in the past.  But wow, he is dynamite here as Macklin’s right-hand-man Cody!  It’s not a deeply-written role, but Mr. Baker’s intensity and charisma just blows everyone else (except Robert Duvall) off the screen.  (I love the scene that introduces Cody, when he stares down two thugs sent to intimidate him at the diner where he works.)

I liked the name Walker that they gave to Lee Marvin’s Parker character in Point Blank.  I questioned the name McClain given to Jim Brown’s character in The Outfit, and giving Robert Duvall’s character the good ol’ boy name of Earl Macklin here is also a very weird choice.

Macklin is a tough guy and extremely capable, as Parker should be.  This is a softer version of the character than we’ve seen before, though.  He lets the hit-man who tries to kill him at the start of the film live, and he seems to let his lover Bette off the hook for betraying him.  (On the other hand, Macklin slaps Bette a bunch of times later in the film, after she knocks his gun out of his hand, and Cody punches a woman right in the face during a robbery — so there’s still some of anti-woman ugliness here.  You certainly wouldn’t see scenes like that in a major movie today.)

Certain major set-pieces from the original story make it into the film: the night-time attack on Parker by a hit-man; Parker’s hold-up of a poker game with Outfit guys, etc., but overall this is less faithful to the source material than Point Blank was.

The set-up of Macklin wanting $250,000 as payback from the Outfit doesn’t work so well in the film.  In the original story, that’s money Macklin was owed from a heist gone wrong, so it makes sense that’s the specific amount he wants from the Outfit.  But here, where Macklin is after revenge for the death of his brother, it feels like an arbitrary number he comes up with.  (Because it is.)

I like the details of Macklin and Cody’s prep for their job — buying guns from that old guy, the logistics of buying a getaway car with “clean papers”, etc.  Those were some of my favorite beats in the movie.

It’s weird that a movie called The Outfit isn’t really about that criminal syndicate at all.  I’d have liked to have seen the guys in the Outfit up against Parker being fleshed out more in the story.  I think that’s another place where this film suffers: other than Joe Don Baker, the rest of the supporting cast around Duvall isn’t that great; none of the characters are that memorable.

SPOILERS in this paragraph for the ending, so beware if you’re not familiar with this film and are planning on watching it.  I was surprised and impressed when I thought the film was about to take a very dark turn at the end; it looked like both Macklin and Cody were going to die.  We saw Cody shot and the two seemed trapped, with police sirens growing closer.  But then, weirdly, in the final moments, we see that the two got away and seem to be just fine.  It’s such a weird reversal right at the end!  Did they lose confidence and decide to tack on a happy ending?   To me it sticks out as an example of how this film couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be.  It’s not the serious, grim noir that Point Blank was, but it’s certainly not a family-friendly adventure film.

I’m glad to have seen The Outfit, even though I didn’t love all of it.  It’s fun to discover a seventies crime film — and a Robert Duvall performance — that I’d never seen before!

Next up: Slayground, starring Peter Coyote, from 1983!

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