Thursday 10 May 2012
(John Flynn, 1973)
Director Flynn made a series of spartan, taut little b-movie thrillers in the early to mid-1970s. The Outfit, the first, was soon followed by Rolling Thunder and Defiance. They're all naturally streamlined, narratively curt and focused on characters who are utterly defined by their actions. In the case of The Outfit, Flynn had the perfect style and sensibility for the source material, one of Richrd Stark's superb "Parker" series of novels.
His Parker is renamed Earl Macklin and played by Robert Duvall as a grimly focused professional who takes on the mob after they kill his brother in revenge for a robbery upon a mob-owned bank some years before. With his girl (Karen Black) and old partner, Cody (Joe Don Baker) in tow, Macklin sets about ruining the mob by attrition, robbing card games, bookmakers and counting rooms across the country and killing anyone who tries to stop him. This naturally gets the attention of big boss Robert Ryan.
Flynn's style is simple, utterly unadorned, and his storytelling is correspondingly strong. He often finds a good master-shot and lets a portion of the scene play out that way, his camera subtly tracking characters as they move around. Those master-shots are plain; there are never any fancy angles, overly clever framing or ostentatious movements in Flynn's work.
That means that sometimes - when he's not quite on his game - scenes can play like tv, despite the (occasionally inspired) Bruce Surtees photography, which is particularly good at finding the dingy beauty in the dull, underlit interiors of hotel corridors and galley kitchens. But other times there's a muscular, tight efficiency to his work.
That's there too in the acting; Duvall is stone-faced throughout, the mask only cracking a couple of times when he seems amused by what he is doing, or more commonly by one of Baker's country boy monologues.
Everyone is muted; Black has a couple of scenes of emotional upset, but Ryan was born for this sort of tersely masculine material, and his weary, lined face alone suggests the long life of death and violence his character has been responsible for.
There is much violence here too; Duvall and Baker pistol-whipping and blasting their way through a savage road movie underworld. Every situation turns on violence or sex - the hillbilly brothers they buy a car from turn violent when Baker refuses the advances of the wife of one, Ryan avoids violence on one occasion to protect his pretty young wife who, he insinuated "treats me well", and even a routine police traffic stop goes wrong. It all ends quite satisfyingly in a big showdown, as it must, and Flynn delivers.
He's helped immeasurably by a terrific Jerry Fielding score; by turns funky, sleazy and tense, it improves this gripping, pulpy b-movie the way all great soundtracks do.