The Outfit

I became obsessed with the novels of Richard Stark (pseudonym of Donald Westlake) about a year ago. By mid-2013, I had read all 16 novels in the original series revolving around career criminal Parker. There’s not a bad one in the lot. I love the economic prose and the toughness of the Parker character. They’ve made a few films based on the series, some bad, some amazing. Here’s a look at one of the (better) film adaptations of a Parker novel, 1973’s The Outfit.

Robert Duvall stars as career criminal Earl Macklin. I have no idea why they changed his name from Parker to Macklin, but Macklin is a cool name too so who cares. He’s just outta the pen after serving two years for a concealed weapon beef. His girlfriend Bett (Karen Black) tells him that his brother was recently murdered by the Outfit (a classy name for the mob). Macklin gets to work, getting information on the murder from some Outfit slob at a poker game. He learns that his brother was killed because they had knocked over an Outfit bank, and like all successful business models, anyone who hits an Outfit location has to be buried.

Macklin enlists the help of an old partner, Cody, played by the great Joe Don Baker. Baker was in some James Bond movies, but he’s probably most remembered for his role as Sheriff Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall. Along with guys like Bronson and Lee Marvin, Baker was one of those unique hunks who exuded a working-class, step up and get your teeth kicked in attitude. He’s got hands that look like they can crush a man’s skull, and for that, I love him.

Macklin and Cody start knocking over Outfit-fronted businesses. It’s explained in more detail in Richard Stark’s source novel of the same name, but because of decades of legitimate business fronts, the Outfit has gone soft. The employees at these fronts are never expecting to get robbed, so they’re never prepared for it and there’s gaping holes in their security. Macklin and Cody (who in the novel is named Handy) start shakin’ shit up in the underworld and the Outfit starts getting sloppy. When the Outfit’s at its most shook, the duo decide to break into the Godfather’s house and take him out – closing the book on Macklin’s revenge for his brother.

Directed by John Flynn (who helmed the incredible revenge film Rolling Thunder), The Outfit is a quiet, patient movie. There’s a great shootout and a joyous payoff during its final moments, but preceding that the film exists against a bleak, tight-lipped landscape that’s more about gestures and scowls than bombastic, silly threats. You spend a lot of downtime with Macklin and Cody as they drink, scheme, and wait around for a stolen car. They say a life of crime numbs you to horrible shit, and Macklin and Cody are living proof. They talk about dead buddies like they’re talking about the weather.

When there are bursts of action, they’re grounded, gritty, and filled with rage. No explosive flourishes or motorcycle backflips – just raw gunfire and people dying on their feet. This is the kind of crime flick I love. Unsentimental, bleak, and honest in its depiction of the relationship between crooks. Macklin and Cody are tough, but they ain’t phony slick like most action stars.

It’s the quiet moments in between jobs that really suck an audience into the underbelly of The Outfit. Like Macklin obsessively cleaning his gun in the hotel room or Cody enthusiastically talking about the diner he owns and hopes to settle down with once he “goes straight”, which he knows will never happen. These are the personal moments that elevate The Outfit to crime genre greatness.

I couldn’t find The Outfit streaming online, sorry, pals. But you can purchase it cheap through the Warner Archive‘s made-to-order program. I’ve used it before and their turnaround is really fast!

Patrick Cooper

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