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Upon his release from prison, Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall), a professional thief, learns that his brother Eddie was just murdered by two hit men working for the mob. Earl also learns from his girlfriend Bett (Karen Black), that he too is a target along with his former partner Cody (Joe Don Baker) for previously robbing a bank owned by the syndicate. Left with no recourse but to stay on the run, Earl decides to attack the organization from within and plots an elaborate revenge. His vendetta eventually leads him to the heavily guarded mansion of the crime boss (Robert Ryan) who ordered the hits.
If The Outfit (1974) bears a striking similarity to Point Blank in its narrative trajectory, it's because it's based on one of the sequels to Richard Stark's The Hunter, the basis for John Boorman's 1967 film version of Point Blank. There are even stylistic touches that mirror Boorman's influential noir such as the desolate Los Angeles locations and Bruce Surtees' evocative cinematography; one camera shot follows Robert Duvall as he moves with steely determination along a hotel corridor toward a violent confrontation, a scene reminiscent of Lee Marvin aggressively striding down a hallway in the Boorman film. But The Outfit, despite its contemporary setting, is also a throwback to the golden age of film noir, one that is reinforced by its hard-boiled dialogue ("I don't talk to guys wearing aprons," "You shouldn't use a girl's arm for an ashtray," etc.) and the cast, many of whom are seasoned veterans of the genre (Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Sheree North, Robert Ryan, Jane Greer, Timothy Carey).
Unfortunately, the movie-going public in 1974 wasn't really interested in a retro noir like The Outfit, preferring instead feel-good entertainments like The Sting or the sensationalism of The Exorcist and the film received minimal distribution. Yet, for fans of the genre, there is much to savor here from the opening sequence which quotes from The Killers (1946) to a racetrack robbery scene that recalls Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). Robert Duvall, who had just portrayed real life cop Eddie Egan in Badge 373 (1973), is equally memorable here as a hardened ex-con whose thirst for revenge is matched by his ruthlessness (smashing a glass into the face of a hired gunman, shooting a poker player through the hand, slapping his girlfriend repeatedly during an argument). Robert Ryan, in his final screen role, is also impressive as the seemingly untouchable syndicate boss Mailer, and viewers will have fun spotting the various celebrity cameos from jazz singer Anita O'Day performing "Your Guess Is As Good as Mine" in a cavernous barroom to such sports figures as Carl Eller (football), Archie Moore (boxer), and Tony Trabert (golf).
Admittedly The Outfit has some problems; Karen Black is completely miscast as Macklin's compromised girlfriend who sports a retro wardrobe that's a pale imitation of Faye Dunaway's classy costumes in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). And the climactic shootout at Mailer's mansion ends in a surprisingly upbeat denouement which seems inconsistent with the film's previously grim tone. Ironically, the TV version plays out as a true noir with The Outfit ending as Earl and Cody are trapped within Mailer's burning house while the police and fire department surround the building (TCM will be showing the original theatrical version).
Producer: Carter De Haven
Director/Screenplay: John Flynn, from the novel by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake)
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Music: Jerry Fielding
Art Direction: Tambi Larsen
Set Decoration: James I. Berkey
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Robert Duvall (Earl Macklin), Karen Black (Bett Jarrow), Joe Don Baker (Cody), Robert Ryan (Mailer), Timothy Carey (Jake Menner), Richard Jaeckel (Chemy), Bill McKinney (Buck), Sheree North (Buck's wife), Marie Windsor (Madge Coyle), Jane Greer (Alma), Henry Jones (Doctor), Joanna Cassidy (Rita), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Carl).
by Jeff Stafford