Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall), fresh out of prison, is told right off the bat that his brother was executed by “The Outfit” (aka “The Mob” for those not of the hard-boiled vernacular). A mistake was made by the brothers, years ago. They robbed a bank that belonged to The Outfit, so they rubbed out one Macklin and are now aiming for the other. Earl teams up with his old partner Cody (Joe Don Baker) and his girlfriend Bett (Karen Black) and decides to make some more trouble for the untouchables, to the tune of $250,000—what he figures the gangsters owe him as compensation for the sibling murder. Naturally, The Outfit sees things differently. Naturally, extreme violence ensues.
Based on a book by the same name by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), The Outfit is another “Parker” book brought to the screen, this time by John Flynn (Rolling Thunder reviewed here). It’s as tough and unglamorous as Point Blank (starring Lee Marvin and based on the Parker book The Hunter) and Duvall is every bit as hardbitten and uncompromising as Gibson was in Payback (also based on The Hunter). It’s as gritty and humorless as ‘70s action movies come. And, unfortunately, it’s not quite memorable, despite all of these high marks.
What makes the Parker character so fascinating on the page is his sheer amorality. He’s not evil; strictly a career criminal who sees life as something he needs to get through on his way to pulling off jobs and rubbing out the people who get in his way. He has no ethical code to speak of and doesn’t hesitate to knock around (or kill) anyone on either side of the law. And as far as “the law” goes, as reviewer Luc Sante pointed out in his article The Gentrification of Crime, “there is no law, so Parker cannot be caught, but merely injured or delayed.” Prison is just an inconvenience of varying time.
That being said, these traits are precisely what keeps the audience at a distance from the character in the movies. Though he is never, for a reason known only to Westlake (who adapted most of these stories to the screen himself), known as “Parker” on screen, the character invariably retains his ruthless “blankness” and fearless determination. But he’s so ruthless that even when Gibson attempted to soften him in Payback, the viewer often finds this amorality too off-putting to root for. The Outfit suffers from this distance as well. There isn’t a bad performance in the film (indeed, it wound up as Robert Ryan’s final appearance) and Duvall is in fine form as always. But Macklin isn’t the hero of the movie; he’s simply the person with which we spend the most time. His reaction to the deaths of those supposedly closest to him more resembles disinterest or irritation rather than any human emotion. Baker’s Cody is bigger and jollier, but no less unethical. And by the end, you grow weary of one gunfight and car chase after the other.
Though there’s little to distinguish The Outfit from other crime films released at the time, it’s surprisingly hard to find. The formula and John Flynn’s undistinguished direction so resembles movies like The Seven-Ups (with crooks replacing cops as the alleged protagonists) that it’s difficult to say why the movie has virtually vanished into the cable television vaults where the other ‘70s escapist yarns receive multiple releases. Even a VHS copy is scarce. Unless you’re a Westlake or Duvall completist, there isn’t much to support obsessive running-down of this one. If it shows up on TCM, catch it by all means. (Be aware of different prints, though; the original theatrical version has an upbeat ending, whereas, apparently, the television cut ends with Earl and Cody trapped inside a burning building and surrounded by police.)