The Outfit (1973) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Stark_The-Outfit_coronet Despite being the third in the Parker series, this is a very good jumping on point for newbies as it summarises all that came before and brings to a close the initial arc, paving the way for a the next 26 neo-noir crime capers published between 1963 and 2008. Despite undergoing plastic surgery, Parker is still being pursued by the mob and decides to take the fight to them. 10 years later it was filmed with Robert Duvall in blistering form as the relentless protagonist.

The following is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); and Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge.

“When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed. He heard the plop of a silencer behind him …”

Donald Westlake had originally intended to kill off his anti-hero Parker in his debut, The Hunter (which I previously reviewed here). His editor at Pocket Books thought there was more mileage in the character however: ‘If you let him escape, and you think you can write a couple of these every year, we’ve got a series.’ The Parker books would keep coming, on an off, for nearly five decades. This entry in essence ties off the loose strands left at the end of the first volume, when the Outfit’s head Bronson double-crossed Parker. Managing to get away. Parker changed his appearance via plastic surgery, but the Outfit still wants to kill him. When they put out a contract on him (having managed to locate him despite a new identity as well as the new face), Parker finally decides to make good on a threat he had made in the first book – that if they (the Mob, the Syndicate etc.) didn’t leave him alone, he would ask his many underworld friends to start hitting their various operations.

“Bronson had never seen him before in his life, but he knew right away it was Parker. He wasn’t even surprised”

Along with the mob, Parker also has to deal with his latest bedmate, the upper-crust Bett Harrow (Elizabeth Ruth Harrow Conway, to give her full name), who it turns out has a taste for rough stuff. When she discovers his real history, she runs off with his gun for a bit of fun (to be taken up in the next volume in the series, The Mourner).

The-Outfit01

Parker writes to a dozen confederates and soon they start undertaking all the jobs against the Mob that they had just been waiting for the right excuse to undertake. The book in broken into four main section. First presents Parker’s initial run-in with a killer and his decision to seek revenge; in the second he contacts some old cronies (with mixed results) and gets together with Handy McKay to complete his plan. This is then followed by a long section, running to more than a third of the book (it’s only 150 pages in total) following the various Outfit operations hit my Parker’s old associates (the various robberies result in over a $1 million loss); and then the final confrontation at Bronson’s house after Parker negotiates a deal with Fairfax, the man’s likely successor in the organisation.

“I just can’t get used to that new Face, Parker. You know, I think it’s even worse than the old one”

Using characters and plot left over from The Hunter, this can feel like a rather slight novel, but there is much to enjoy in seeing the outfit’s frustration and disbelief when professional crooks turn against them. Even better is a scene in which Bronson has it explained to him that this also occurred because the Outfit has become so legit that its employees behave as they would with any other large employer and so aren’t going to put their lives on the line just to stop the day’s taking being taken from the safe. This irony gives the book a nice satirical edge and certainly lifts what is otherwise a well-written but rather too straightforward revenge tale, though Westlake / Stark does do some interesting structural work int he finale that involves moving back several days before catching up with itself (sic). The movie version, starring Robert Duvall, would take a very different approach – indeed, it was originally meant to be set in period …

MGM had already adapted The Hunter as Point Blank with Lee Marvin starring as ‘Walker’ (Westlake wouldn’t sell the movie rights to the character’s name) and The Seventh as The Split with Jim Brown as ‘McClain.’ Duvall is here named ‘Earl Macklin’ and the film is surprisingly faithful despite having to make several necessary deviations. Writer and director John Flynn had originally meant to make this an hommage to Film Noir and set it in the 1940s, casting such veterans of the genre as Jane Greer, Robert Ryan, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr and Timothy Carey (the latter three incidentally all co-starred in Kubrick’s The Killing). This got changed for budgetary reasons but the storyline survives more or less intact, though of necessity the film has to stand alone, unlike the book. Thus Macklin is now avenging the murder of his brother, killed by the Outfit after they and their friend Cody (Joe Don baker, playing the same role as Handy from the book) knocked off a bank. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t know it was a front used by the Outfit. He and Handy now go on a crime spree rather than Parker”s friends and Bett (Karen Black) sticks around for the whole story, instead of vanishing after the first chapter. Apart from that it really folllows the story, characters and dialogue from the book and makes for a pacy thriller with a really terrific cast. Robert Ryan in one of his very last roles plays the Bronson character (here renamed Mailer), while the lovely Joanna Cassidy made her screen debut as his hardboiled wife.

The-Outfit02

The complete list of the Stark / Parker novels can be found here. To learn more about this series of books, you can do no better than visit the ultimate resource on the matter, The Violent World of Parker.

DVD Availability: Available in Spain as a pressed disc or as an on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive, both use the same decent print. No extras to speak of. Unfortunately, it looks like the Spanish edition has a problem, with the English soundtrack going out of sync at 58 minutes (mine does and others have reported the problem too) so best to get the US release.

Director: John Flynn
Producer: Carter DeHaven
Screenplay: John Flynn
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Art Direction: Tambi Larsen
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Joe Don Baker,  Robert Ryan, Joanna Cassidy, Timothy Carey, Richard Jaeckel, Sheree North, Felice Orlandi, Marie Windsor, Jane Greer, Elisha Cook Jr.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘made into a movie’ category:

Vintage-Silver-marked-Card -16

 

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Donald Westlake, Film Noir, Parker, Richard Stark. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Outfit (1973) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Rewatched this last year. Holds up well, and Duvall performed solidly in the Parker-role. But of course, always fun to watch Sheree North, too. Fine review, Sergio.

  2. Sergio – I always respect it when a series has that much mileage in it. Impressive. And it is nice when the author’s able to welcome new readers and at the same time, keep fans interested. Oh, and I like that scenario of the Outfit getting theirs back, so to speak. There’s something symmetrical about it, if you know what I mean.

  3. Colin says:

    This is a fine movie (haven’t read the book) that I haven’t seen in years and have been meaning to catch up with again. Sorry to hear about the issues with the Spanish disc – disappointing.
    The cast has a great blend of actors from the classic noir era and the 70s, although Duvall does always feel like a kind of bridge between classic and modern cinema.

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    Gosh, Karen Black was around so much in the early seventies and then poof. Don’t think I saw this one,

    • Thanks Patti. She was a really unusual leading lady and the role in the film was created pretty much out of whole cloth as it bears no relation to the character in the books. She fares slightly better than Joanna Cassidy, who gets to play the really tough wife of the Robert Ryan character but isn’t given enough to do really, though as a debut I think it’s pretty impressive and considering she has to share all ger scenes with Ryan she really displays her acting chops just by not getting elbowed off the screen!

  5. Yvette says:

    I’ve heard about the Stark books for ages but I’ve never been tempted to read any simply because they just don’t sound like they were written with me in mind. :) But as always I’ve enjoyed reading your detailed point of view, Sergio.

    • Thanks Yvette – well, they were paperback originals aimed at male readers who wanted stories of heists with a dark edge, so maybe that doesn’t sound like you all that much – I mean, sure, maybe … :)

  6. Yvette says:

    …nor for that matter, seen any of the films.

    • Point Blank is a brilliant film, especially if you like the idea of an existential thriller shot in the style of the French New Wave with lots of flash backs as well flash forwards … I can tell i’m reeling you in here …

  7. TracyK says:

    I have been meaning to read this series, there is just so much to read, I will never catch up. The movie sounds great, lots of interesting actors and I love Joe Don Baker.

  8. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. I’d see this film for its fine and assorted cast, particularly Robert Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan, Joanna Cassidy, and Richard Jaeckel, even if I have never read any of the Westlake/Stark novels—one of the many yawning gaps in my reading of crime fiction.

  9. John says:

    How could you forget to mention Sheree North? I saw her name in the credits list at the end of this post and then the first commenter mentioned her. Guess she’s better known to US TV viewers. She turned up a lot as a guest star on all sorts of shows (crime, sit-com, drama, made-for-TV movie) during the 1970s. Nominated for an Emmy twice. Not too shabby for an actor who was rarely a lead. She was a fascinating actress with her unique voice and her sultry performances.

    This is a movie unknown to me until today. What a cast of veterans! I’m not keen on the Warner MOD DVDs sometimes they work in my cheap DVD player, but more often they don’t and I have to then watch them on my laptop. Not ideal for movie viewing. Netflix tends not to carry any of the MOD DVDs whether Warner or Sony (who own the Columbia Pictures archive). But maybe it’ll turn up in one of the few video stores I occasionally visit. Thanks for this review.

    • Thanks John – and fair enough, I should have mentioned North’s presence as she’s got a nice supporting as a very bitchy troublemaker though she did even better that year in Charley Varrick, a superior movie in every sense. Shame Fox tried to turn her into a Monroe clone as she was potentially much more interesting but she never seemed to find that career-defining persona to make her a big star. Always liked her a lot though.
      Sheree North in THE OUTFIT

  10. Jeff Cordell says:

    Made during the early seventies when Hollywood was turning out some pretty good crime movies. Not as good as some, but I think it’s aged pretty well. All too soon these hard-boiled neo-noir movies were going to have to make way to the summer blockbuster. There was a great white shark and a guy in black armor just waiting in the wings.

    • Jeff Cordell says:

      Oh and by the way I’m also Jeff. Didn’t realize I could sign in using Facebook. So now you have a face with the name.

    • The contrast with somethign high concept like Jaws and this or Night Moves is pretty shocking actually – thansk for that Jeff.

      • Jeff Cordell says:

        It’s interesting that Roy Scheider was in “Jaws” since he starred in several of the crime movies from the early sevenites. “French Connection”, “The Seven-Ups”, “The Outside Man” (solid French- Italian made gangster flick set in Los Angeles.Directed by Jacques Deray). Anyway a couple years ago here in the Internet I found an article in which the writer observed that the torch had been passed in “Jaws” when Scheider ,playing the cop, blasts away ineffectually with his 38 Special revolver at the shark as it cruises by. That’s what i like about sites like yours. People bring very different perspectives to things. Lots of fun.

        • Thanks Jeff – never thought of Scheider’s role int hat way, but of course you’re absolutely right – you can already feel the difference in Marathon Man which feels quite hyped up in many respects (I like it a lot by the way) compared with Schlesinger’s previous films.

          • Jeff Cordell says:

            You’re right. “Marathon Man” does have a different feeling than the movies that he was in just a couple years earlier. Great movie by the way, but it was starting to change.

          • You could argue that the low key grittiness of the 70s was all a bit of blip anyway, but a very welcome one all the same!

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