Writing about Gangster Squad yesterday made me think about some other, better movies in which the mob is taken on by a small team of rogues. I mentioned The Untouchables in my review, since that film and Gangster Squad share a very similar plot – but there are a slew of others. My favorite ones involve criminal on criminal crime, in which the mob is taken on by a rogue group of hoods, out for revenge against the big business bullshit.
Two of the best examples of these films are based on the ’60s crime novels by Richard Stark: Point Blank (1967) and The Outfit (1973). Point Blank (based on Stark’s novel The Hunter) is a surreal, fever-dream of a revenge flick starring the immortal Lee Marvin that I’ll definitely write about at some point, but I revisited The Outfit recently so I’ll get to that bad bitch first.
The Outfit stars Robert Duvall as career criminal Earl Macklin. Macklin’s just outta the pen after serving two years for a concealed weapon bid. 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 (see: illustration above). 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 got 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 are named Parker and 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 Rolling Thunder, my favorite revenge movie of all time), 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 (“Here comes Sandy Claws!“). 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 aint 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 – high above the silly goose shit of Gangster Squad.
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.- Patrick Cooper