Outfit, The (DVD Review)20 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Robert Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Karen Black, Robert Ryan.
By 1973, MGM was close to being on the life support that has barely sustained it for decades, though extremely infrequent respites such as Network and Victor/Victoria did still loom in the future. Studio chief James (“the Smiling Barracuda”) Aubrey got into public dust-ups with the few good directors who’d even work in Leo the Lion’s employ (Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards), and most MGM product was relegated to passion-pit drive-ins. The Outfit suffered this fate, and if memory serves, I don’t even think it got a booking in the city where I was then living (Washington, D.C.). It also didn’t get a New York opening until six months after it played in smaller markets. But it does have a small following because for fans of film noir, it has something of a dream cast.
Adapting a Donald E. Westlake novel six years after Westlake’s The Hunter had given MGM 1.5 of its finest hours of the 1960s with its screen version (Point Blank), writer-director John Flynn fashioned a very mean movie — can this really be a PG? — in which someone gets shot in the hand and another is threatened with even worse (try one toe at a time). The premise operates on a rude surprise: that the Midwest bank you and your brother knocked off was the personal play-pretty of the local mob. Stick-up perpetrator Robert Duvall, just out of the cooler, is in a foul mood because “the boys” have just exacted revenge on his brother, gunning him down in the backyard. Shacked up in the first of many ‘C’-list motels with his travelling squeeze (Karen Black), Duvall barely escapes a similar hit-man fate, though the experience clears his head.
In short order, he recruits Joe Don Baker from a roadside eatery to be his aide; bloodies-up a high-stakes poker game that includes the perennially watchable character actor Timothy Carey (he of the wounded hand); and, in what is probably the movie’s best scene, has one whale of a time at a farmhouse (killer dog included) trying to get a good deal on a car that won’t be linked to him. The seller is played by Richard Jaeckel, an actor who looked perennially young well into his ’40s and had recently gotten an Oscar nomination for playing Paul Newman’s brother in the movie of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Jaeckel’s brother here is played as a hothead by Bill McKinney, a future Clint Eastwood regular who had recently been immortalized as one of the notoriously amorous Deliverance outdoorsmen not exactly of the Field & Stream mode. McKinney’s nympho wife, and the movie is better for it, is played by Sheree North — who made one of the sexist segues into middle age of any 1950s starlet and here causes a lot of trouble by hitting on Baker about five minutes after meeting him. And even by this point of the story, film buffs have already been treated to the sight of veterans Jane Greer (once a reigning queen of film noir), Marie Windsor (ditto) and Elisha Cook, Jr. (reunited with Windsor from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing).
A key selling point is a twilight appearance by the great Robert Ryan, who by the time The Outfit came out in October had died of lung cancer (in July). Ryan had three posthumous movies released within a month of each other that fall: The Outfit, Executive Action and The Iceman Cometh (for which many, myself included, think he should have had the ’73 supporting Oscar). In terms of filming chronology, the order went Cometh, Outfit and Action, so this was pretty late in the game. There were few actors more identified with noir than Ryan, though The Outfit marked his first return to the genre since 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow (and despite its preponderance of daylight scenes, I think The Outfit probably does qualify as noir). Ryan’s character has a trophy wife whose intelligence he impugns (Joanna Cassidy; more good casting). He keeps ordering his lackeys to give him the latest Rams scores (Cassidy hates football) and is so incensed when Duvall keeps getting the upper hand that he goes into one of those patented Robert Ryan screen rages, bellowing that he wants his new nemesis “wrapped in cellophane.”
The result is no world-beater, but it never tries to be more than it is, and the casting hits keep-a-comin’ with the appearances of former boxers Archie Moore and Roland La Starza, Shane villain Emile Meter as a gun dealer and even Petticoat Junction regular Jeannine Riley as a prostitute. There’s even a scene where Duvall goes into a saloon dive and the resident singer (no close-up but the voice is unmistakable) is jazz royalty Anita O’Day — identified in the credits as playing “herself.” Man. I know from her autobiography and 2007’s equally recommended documentary Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer that she had a tough road in real life. But this?