Thursday, May 26, 2016

Parker: THE OUTFIT

From 3 years ago... because I was talking with Ramesh about this film at 3 RIVERS SCREENWRITING CONFERENCE over the weekend...

Countdown To PARKER continues with THE OUTFIT. One of the interesting things about all of the previous Parker movies is that none of them have called their character "Parker" - I suspect part of that is to allow them to make a stand alone movie that isn't related to any of the others.


THE OUTFIT (1973, written & directed by John Flynn) is one of those no-nonsense action films from the 1970s - kind of a studio B movie. This was the tail end of the studio system, when they were still making movies just to fill screens. Studios were like giant factories with employees, and it would cost them more to shut down between movies than to just make some “programmer” movies. Now studios are just banks and distributors, and they do not have any full time employees, but in the early 70s they had actors under contract and film crews and directors who they paid a salary to whether they were working or not... so why not keep them working making B movies? Some studios, like Universal, became big TV producers with their employees on salary. But they all made “programmers” - basic meat and potatoes genre films often starring second string stars or TV guys like James Garner. Garner starred in all kinds of programmers, from the comedy-western GET TO KNOW YOUR SHERIFF movies to some action flicks like MARLOWE. The great thing about these movies is that the studios still had all of these great character actors under contract, so you’d get a bunch of familiar faces in every film.

The “programmers” served a handful of purposes - they kept the studio employees working, they filled screens with movies to watch until the studio’s next *big* film like THE STING came out, they often played as the “A feature” at rural drive ins and big city grind houses (in “second run” - after they had already played in normal cinemas as “screen fillers”) they were kind of the farm team for actors and directors and stars - grooming them for bigger and better films, they helped “amortize” the big budget films, and every once in a while one of these little studio B movies became a big hit - and the studio made a ton of money from a very small investment.

The great thing about the action films from this period is that without Paul Newman or Steve McQueen or big budgets, they had to entice the audience with what Blockbuster video used to call “Super Action” - fist fights and car crashes and hot women. In order to get you into the cinema, they’d make the fist fights more visceral, and the shoot outs might be fewer... but more savage, and you weren’t getting the car chase from BULLITT, but they’d crash some junker cars and there would be a nice explosion. These were studio exploitation films. The quality of a studio film crew, the subject matter of some drive in action flick. This time period also gave us all of the great studio Blaxploitation films like SHAFT (also from MGM).

Part of my love for these films is that they are not about rich guys with good jobs in nice office buildings, none of these guys would be caught dead as the love interest in a rom-com. These films are about guys who work for a living, and seem to either take place in the big city or somewhere rural... Charles Bronson played a *watermelon farmer* in one of these films!

THE KILLER SET UP



So THE OUTFIT stars Robert Duvall, from those GODFATHER movies, as a version of Richard Stark’s Parker named *Macklin*, who gets out of prison and discovers his brother has been murdered by the mob and wants to get himself a little revenge. The guy who wrote the novels thought Duvall was closest to his creation, and this is Duvall playing deep fried tough guy to perfection.

Film opens with a Priest in a taxi cab driven by Felice Orlandi - who you would recognize as the low level pock-marked crook in at least a dozen films (including BULLITT!), stopping at a gas station to ask for directions. So you know something is wrong...

Orlandi isn’t just playing a taxi driver like Duvall did in BULLITT, he’s some sort of bad guy. It’s like casting Gary Busey as a waiter. When they get to this house out in the middle of nowhere (rural setting), there is a guy fixing a fence with his dog... And Orlandi and the Priest show up with guns and blow him to pieces. Violently. They just keep firing at him while the dog barks and yelps. The dog is a great touch - when it howls for its dead master, we feel its pain.

Then Duvall gets released from prison, where his ex-girlfriend Karen Black is waiting for him. She tells him she has not been at all faithful, and he says that’s okay - he was away for a while. Then she tells him that his brother was killed by some mob guys...

That night in some crappy roadside motel, a bunch of mob guys including Orlandi try to kill Duvall. But he’s one tough bastard and blasts them all and gets the name of the guy behind it. But he also knows that Black set him up by picking that particular crappy roadside motel.

SOME CASUAL VIOLENCE


Duvall braces Black, she pulls back her sleeve and there are at least a dozen big infected cigarette burns. Guy who did it to her? Same guy who hired the killers who killed his brother. Seems the bank robbery that Duvall was busted for was a mob owned bank. They killed his brother for being part of it, they tried to kill Duvall, and they tried to kill the third guy in the robbery - Joe Don Baker. So Duvall and Black drive to the big city hotel where the lead bad guy is playing a 24 hour poker game...

While Black sits in the car with the motor running, Duvall walks into the hotel, goes up the elevator, pokes his gun in the face of the guard at the hotel room door, takes him out to the balcony and SLAMS him with his gun, then goes back to the hotel room, kicks open the door, slams the inside guard in the face without even slowing down, and robs the poker game - taking guns and cash. The great thing about this sequence is that it’s *suddenly violent* and the film never makes a big deal about it. If this film had been made today, they would make it a big deal... and it wouldn’t be nearly as cool. By downplaying the importance of the violence without downplaying the level of violence, it makes it seem like it is all in a day’s work for Duvall. Before Duvall slams the outside guard with his gun they have a casual conversation and the outdoor guard requests to be slammed with the pistol on his right side because of a previous injury to the left said of his head. These guys get hit with guns and shoot people for a living - no big deal.

The lead bad guy at the poker table is played by the great Timothy Carey - from THE KILLING - who is a big fat a-hole. Timothy Carey is one of those guys who shows up, gives a great sneering performance that gives you nightmares, and collects his check. There are actors who you can see working, Carey isn’t one of them. Hard to believe that this complete a-hole is the same actor who was so sympathetic in THE KILLING.

Carey taunts Duvall as he robs them - he’s got a gun pointed at him, and he’s still spouting crap. Duvall tells him that the mob has to pay $250k for the death of his uninsured brother... who leaves a widow behind.

Then, just when you think the whole thing is over and Duvall is about to leave, he calmly shoots Carey through the hand for using Black’s arm as an ashtray. Danged brutal!

Duvall connects with Joe Don Baker in some rural cabins that are owned by an ex-whore played by Marie Windsor from THE NARROW MARGIN, one of many great bit parts played by actors and actresses from classic noir and action flicks. This film is a who’s who of Noir actors... Elisha Cook Jr from THE MALTESE FALCON pops up in a bit part and Jane Greer from OUT OF THE PAST is the widow! Over some beers they decide to take the mob for $250k - even if it means they get killed. They are already on the mob hit list, right? What’s the worst that could happen? The plan is to rob every mob place they can find until they get $250k or they mob pays them. Then the $250k goes to his brother’s window.

DANGEROUS ADAPTATION


One of the interesting things about this film is how they turned what was book #3 in the Parker series into a stand alone movie. Unfortunately, THE OUTFIT is too much like POINT BLANK to be a good double bill. In the books, after Parker gets his money back from the mob there is one mobster left alive - Bronson. Bronson wants Parker dead, so in book #2 Parker gets plastic surgery. In book #3, Bronson tries to kill Parker... and Parker decides to show the mob who has more power by getting the word out to all of his armed robber friends across the USA that robbing the mob is now okay - as long as they mention Parker’s name. So in the novel THE OUTFIT, all across the USA robbery teams are knocking over mob businesses (casinos, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, etc) and eventually Bronson decides to leave Parker alone.

The film manages to stay faithful to the book and still change the core story. One scene that’s lifted right from the book - but they completely change the location: When Duvall and Baker go to buy weapons, in the book the characters go to a hobby shop and the guns and rifles are hidden in model car kit boxes. In the movie they pick up a salesman with a sample case on the side of the road, and the sample case is filled with guns - kind of like the gun salesman in TAXI DRIVER. They drive around the highway and do siome shopping at the same time.

The dead brother thing is how they make THE OUTFIT work as a stand alone, and this gets used in a great scene from the book where Parker shows up at these redneck brothers rural chop shop, and they don’t recognize him because of the plastic surgery... and there’s some tension where they may kill Parker because with that new face he’s a stranger to them. Same scene in the film, but it was Duvall’s *brother* who knew the redneck brothers, so he must convince them he’s trustworthy. In this scene there also an angry dog that’s a threat throughout the scene - I have no idea how much a growling dog costs compared to an explosion, but the dog turns even the quiet moments in the scene into potential danger... And there aren’t many quiet moments.

I love the redneck brothers in both the book and the film. These guys are moonshine hot-rodders who know more about cars and how to make them go fast than all of those NASCAR mechanics combined. They build getaway cars for a living. The idea that people like this exist as peripheral occupations in the world of professional armed robbers is really cool - it’s like being taken into the armed robber’s world and shown details that you never knew existed. One of the cool things in this scene (both book and movie) is the VW Bug getaway car with the hidden V8 - looks like it would have trouble going up hills, but can do over 120 mph. Only problem? It doesn’t *sound* like a VW... and the brothers are trying to find the right muffler combination to get the sound right.

This part is *great* in both book and film, because while Duvall is off with the brothers (played by Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney - the hillbilly rapist from DELIVERANCE) looking at cars, Joe Don Baker is left with McKinney’s superhot wife played by Sheree North (who was kind of a Suzanne Sarandon earthy type) who tells him they have time for some luvin’ before her husband comes back. And she does everything possible to get him interested. And it gets *us* interested too (at least, the male target audience for this film).

THOSE BRA-LESS BABES


Now, I have no idea what was going on in 1973, but bras seemed to be completely out of fashion. No woman in this film is wearing a bra. Karen Black is wiggling around, even Marie Windsor was braless. Heck, the old waitress in the coffee shop is wiggling around! That’s actually kind of gross, but I guess it’s a small price to pay because a bra-less Sheree North? Yikes! She is already a mega-busty woman (real ones, too - this was made back when all big breasts were the real thing), add the lack of bra and the tight tops and... well, um, it’s easy to forget what the plot is. Anyway, she offers Joe Don Baker a little luvin’ and he decides that is a good way to get killed and refuses...

But when Duvall and Jaeckel and McKinney return with the car, North tells her husband that Joe Don tried to screw her. McKinney goes crazy and tries to kill Baker, and there’s a big fight, and Duvall and Baker dive in the car and barely get out of there alive. One of the great throw away lines in this bit is that brother Jaeckel *did* sleep with her! These people are all sleeping with each other - it’s Tennessee Williams country!

CONFLICT ON THE SIDE


Now, the cool part about this scene is that it isn’t one of the scenes where Duvall and Baker are taking on the mob... this is a scene where they *prepare* to take on the mob, and it is filled with tension and conflict and excitement. The great thing about lots of these meat and potato action films is that they make sure that even the scenes between the action scenes are exciting. They find the conflict in the little scenes - there’s a great bit where Black and Duvall are hiding out in a another crappy roadside motel and Black goes out to call her mom from a payphone and tell her that she’s okay... and there is a man watching her the whole time. Some mob flunky posted at that motel to look out for them. So the great character scene where Black talks with her mother and we get a glimpse of her white trash past and the way she hooked up with Duvall to try and climb out of it... is an incredibly tense scene. And there’s no shoot out or car chase or giant fireball or someone outrunning an explosion... it’s just some creepy guy watching her.

So, Duvall and Baker decide to talk to the local mob guy headquartered in a bar/restaurant who hired the hitmen, with Black as their getaway driver... and it’s a really cool scene filled with all kinds of side conflicts and one kick ass line of dialogue, “I don’t talk to guys who wear aprons.” Duvall gets in to the mobster’s office pretending to be a mob guy from Timothy Carey’s crew... accompanied by the guy in an apron - the bartender, and has this conversation with the mob guy about those hit men who got killed... and the mobster just looks at him and says - you’re Macklin. Knows it right away. And that’s when the bartender attacks. Sudden violence. One moment they’re talking, the next moment the bartender is trying to club Duvall in the head.

After Duvall slams them to the floor, he robs the mob safe - this is like a regional headquarters, so there’s a bunch of money. As Duvall and Baker escape there’s this big muscular cook with a huge meat cleaver in the kitchen who tries to stop them. That cook character was established when Duvall and the guy in the apron walk past the kitchen... using that cleaver. And you just know that cleaver is gonna be used on him later... or, at least the guy will try. That’s the kind of cool thing that happens in these films - instead of being some cook frying eggs, you get a guy with a giant meat cleaver.

BAD ASS HEROES


Another thing that comes directly from the book, with a bit of a change, is Baker’s character owning a diner... it’s in Maine in the books and in Oregon... but the town name remains the same. Baker and Duvall have this great conversation in the car about the shelf life on being an armed robber... and how getting old makes it more difficult. A very realistic version of the “I’m getting too old for this shit” conversation.

Black has gone home to her mom, and Duvall and Baker just start kicking major ass. They rob a sports betting place - and Baker savagely slugs a woman at the front desk. When they get inside, they can’t get anyone to open the safe and Duvall grabs the guy in charge and says he’s gonna blow off a toe for every minute the guy doesn’t give him the combination... then has one of the other hostages take off the guy’s shoe!

The Macklin character is what I call a Bad Ass Hero - not that there’s anything defective about his hindquarters. There are two basic types of action heroes: Superman and Every Man. The Every Man type is a normal guy who ends up fighting bad guys - like John McClane in DIE HARD. The Super Man is like James Bond - someone who is our fantasy figure. This has nothing to do with spandex or capes or super powers - Tony Stark is an Every Man, as is Peter Parker. And most roles played by Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris are Super Man types - tough guy fantasies. We wish we were that guy!

Duvall’s character is a Super Man type - kind of a blue collar James Bond. He’s tough, he says clever things we wish we could think of (“Die somewhere else!”), he’s ultra-confident, he is never afraid (or never shows his fear), he never shows any sign of weakness and never shows pain. He’s the kind of guy who gets shot and takes it like a man. He’s a man of violence, who *hurts people*. Seagal swiped his character from BILLY JACK, but does a great job with it. Seagal *breaks people’s bones* in fight scenes - he’s savage. He also does the great Bad Ass Hero speech thing - where he gives his super confident warning about how, exactly, he will beat the crap out of the ten guys surrounding him. No fear - he has it all planned out. He’s a Bad Ass. He’s gonna eff those ten guys up. Duvall’s Macklin has some similar Bad Ass moments - in Act 3 he’s *way* out numbered and tells the mob henchmen that they don’t have to die, they can just walk away. Um, that takes some major cajones! Shooting Carey’s hand and clubbing guys in the head with his gun without even slowing down - all of these are Bad Ass Hero moments. This guy kicks ass!

BIG BAD GUYS


The reason why this was “too much of a good thing” when doubled with POINT BLANK is that eventually it becomes Duvall and Baker climbing the ladder of mobsters to get the $250k for the widow... and that’s not that much different. In the book they were just robbing mob places until Bronson took the price off the Duvall character’s head. When they changed it into money, they ended up in POINT BLANK territory. Robert Ryan plays a version of Bronson named Mailer - the head of the mob... and a very young Joanna Cassidy as his hot (braless) trophy wife. Ryan is one of the film’s secret weapons - he’s not only one of those guys who has been in a bunch of old noir and crime films, he’s tough as nails. He’s a bad ass, too.

At a horse auction, Duvall and Baker brace Ryan - a very public scene with Ryan’s bodyguards right there and everyone trying to be on best behavior... but seconds away from shooting each other. Duvall and Ryan have a nice little chat that is all about the world of organized crime vs the world of independents - Ryan thinks Duvall is nothing more than a stick up artist... but Duvall has been hitting them hard. It’s a good hero and villain scene - and the little guy being smarter than the big guy... just not as strong. It’s what the film is all about - the theme in a tense scene with guns and the chance for a bunch of innocent bystanders to get killed. This idea of the little guy going up against the big guy is part of the appeal of these films. They are about underdogs who kick some ass that we wish we could kick. In a strange way, THE OUTFIT is kind of a Tea Party movie - normal people standing up and taking down The Man. I don’t think it’s an accident that the bad guys in lots of these 70s films end up being big time mobsters who live in giant mansions, or big business guys who live in giant mansions, or crooked politicians who live in giant mansions. It’s blue collar workers against rich a-holes.

Where POINT BLANK turns organized crime into glass and chrome skyscrapers and the 60s version of big business with junior executives in charge, OUTFIT makes it layers of sleazy mobsters with a John Gotti type at the top. Not as interesting, but works well for a straight action flick like this. A lot of the pulp paperbacks at the time, like the EXECUTIONER series, were about Viet Nam vets who take on the mob. Ryan, as usual, is brilliant playing Mailer: barking orders and always on the verge of exploding. He’s one of my favorite tough guy actors because he always had a trace of vulnerability.

After Duvall and Ryan have their little chat, the film becomes a series of action scenes setting one against the other until we get to Act 3 where Duvall and Baker buy additional weapons and bombs and anything else they can get their hands on and storm Ryan’s country estate for an Act 3 of wall-to-wall action. Dozens of mobsters guarding Ryan means dozens of shoot outs and fight scenes... and then all kinds of ground taken and lost once they get inside the house. Though big studio films often have wall-to-wall action in Act 3, in these 70s films it tends to be more personal and visceral - shoot outs with people in the next room... close enough to smell. In one scene, a character looks in a mirror and can see something happening in the next room... and uses his gun. It’s close fighting, rather than the big explosions of today’s blockbusters. And the close fighting ends up being more personal and more emotional. Though, um, there are some explosions. And I forgot to mention the car explosions that happen before the house raid - there’s a great country road car chase and shoot out ending with an explosion when Ryan sets Tim Carey after Duvall and Baker.

ACT THREE ACTION


The Duvall & Baker team seem like a predecessor for writer-director John Flynn’s next film - ROLLING THUNDER (written by the great Paul Schrader) where William Devane & Tommy Lee Jones team up to take down some scumbags in Mexico. That’s another great B action flick that I don’t think is on DVD. The shoot out in the whorehouse in THUNDER is much like the end shootout in OUTFIT. Two guys with guns take on a house full of trouble... and stay standing even after they have been shot multiple times. One of the great things about seeing THE OUTFIT on the big screen is that you don’t get that crappy TV print where they changed the end. Somewhere along the line, some network’s Standards & Practices (censors) decided that having Duvall and Baker get away at the end was immoral. They are armed robbers! They kill a whole lotta people! The people they do not kill, they aren’t very nice to! So the network cut the end where they escape, and end with the two laying wounded on the stairs of the country estate after all of the bad guys are dead, listening to the police sirens getting closer - seemingly resigned to do prison time. The great print the New Beverly showed had them cleverly slipping past the police, laughing.

THE OUTFIT isn’t a great film, but it’s a *fun* one. It seems like real people in real situations really hurting people. Not like the fake action flicks we get these days. I miss these meat and potatoes flicks - just meant to fill some screens and provide some great little action stories. The B movies today all seem to be chasing the A movies - trying to be big event films made for a nickle. The only time we get films like this seems to be those flicks that are either almost parodies of 70s action films or *actual* parodies of B action films. It’s too bad. Some studio should start making some little no-nonsense action films on low enough budgets that they can’t lose money. Just some guys kicking ass for 90 minutes. I’d watch that...

Buy THE OUTFIT at Warner Archives.

- Bill

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Pacing - from NORTH BY NORTHWEST to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
Dinner: Popeye's Chicken.
Bicycle: Short - didn't sleep well and riding didn't wake me up today... there wasn't enough coffee in Starbucks to wake me up today!
Pages: Not much got done on the new Blue Book.

3 comments:

The Moviequill said...

Just watched The Outfit last week and loved it. My fave part was the Richard Jaekel car guy part, that tension when the hillbilly chick says Joe Don Baker touched her... nice tension

Hold Me Matt said...

Donald Westlake said he based the Parker character on tough-guy actor Jack Palance.

RE: ROLLING THUNDER.

I watched a 16mm print at a private screening last week - so much more enjoyable with a crowd.

You should ask the programmers at the New Bev, I think I read somewhere it's one of QT's favorites, so he probably owns the original 35.

/am reading Ted Lewis' GET CARTER at the moment - it was published when he was only 30.

Sam T. said...

The new Parker movie is a January release. This is the time that the studios try to just fill the screens with something, anything that makes some money. I hope this movie will be at least half as good as other movies based on Donald Westlake's novels. I read two graphic novels based on "The Hunter" and "The Outfit" books and thoroughly enjoyed them. Hopefully I get to read the real full length novels one of these days.

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