The Outfit (1973) is Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) done right. The film — which screens tomorrow night at Anthology, kicking off their The 70s: Undiscovered Gems series — is better than John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), which turned Stark’s iconic hitman Parker into an existential joke; better than Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. (1966), which pillaged Stark’s The Jugger for its own self-gratifying ambitions; and without a doubt better than the soft-shoeing, touchy-feely Payback (1999) with Mel Gibson. And while director and screenwriter John Flynn takes some liberties and uses bits and pieces of the Parker lore from other novels, none of them adversely affect the outcome, and ultimately make this the rare adaptation worthy of the Stark/Westlake tradition.
Robert Duvall plays Parker (here called Macklin) with an understated hardboiled demeanor. No cracking wise here — Duvall understands that he is playing a businessman whose cool head and emotionless disconnect isn’t a sign of sociopathy but of his integrity. After foiling a hitman’s attempt on his life, Macklin discovers that an organization known as The Outfit is after him for knocking over one of their banks. No beating around the bush, he goes straight to the man responsible for placing the hit, Menner (Tim Carey, with his characteristic élan), robbing him of all his poker winnings and demanding $250,000 for the inconvenience of almost being killed. All things considered, it’s not too outrageous a sum considering who he’s dealing with — and that’s his point all along: he wants to do business, not start a war with the mob. If they would just give him the money, he’d leave them alone.
But they won’t give it up, so he has to fight his way all the way to kingpin Robert Ryan (the cast keeps getting better and better, right?). In films like Caught and On Dangerous Ground, Ryan showed a unique gift for creating sympathetic characters on the verge of a violent and emotional breakdown, though in The Outfit he is decidedly more placid, as though age has mellowed his angry outbursts. Here, he clearly admires the forthright Macklin — particularly Macklin’s verve that his own flunkeys lack. However, this only reminds him of his own impending demise. Much like his other late-career roles in And Hope to Die (1972) and The Wild Bunch (1969), there is an elegiac rage repressed beneath the calm of his face.
Stoically reserved on stylistic flourishes, Flynn directs with the same no frills, pared down style as Stark/Westlake. The narrative moves quickly and fluidly, peppered with spot-on performances from a dream cast that includes not only Duvall, Carey and Ryan, but also Karen Black as Macklin’s moll, as well as appearances from old school noir vets Elisha Cook, Jr. Marie Windsor, and Jane Greer. It’s not available on DVD, but even so, The Outfit is the sort of gritty, unassuming crime caper that seems all the more like the lost treasure it truly is on 35mm.