The premise of a lone gunman going after the mob is nothing new and has been done several times since 1973, including Mel Gibson in Payback and Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition among others. Payback is almost an exact reworking of the story here, but the original is still the best. If you needed to explain to someone what a 1970s crime thriller was about, The Outfit could be a blueprint for everything that is good about that type of movies. Perfect casting, exciting action, a cynical, very dark tone, a little black humor thrown in, and a gritty style that just can't be replicated.
Fresh out of prison, Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) finds out his brother has been killed by two hit men, supposedly for a job the brothers pulled off years before on a mob bank. With a former girlfriend (Karen Black) along for the ride, Macklin survives a hit attempt on his own life and decides to go on the offensive. He enlists the help of a former partner, Cody (Joe Don Baker), and the duo goes to work. Macklin wants $250,000 for the trouble 'the outfit' has caused him, but when they don't pay up they start hitting backroom casinos and mob fronts, taking all the money in sight. But as they go up the ladder, Macklin and Cody realize they'll have to go right to the top, the big-time mobster in charge, Mailer (Robert Ryan). The mobster's waiting for them though and nobody might get out alive.
This is everything that's good about a 1970s B-movie crime thriller. No big budget, no huge scale, just two pissed off guys with nothing to lose going after the mob. Director John Flynn shoots his movie in seedy motels, back room offices and dark alleys where a story like this would actually take place. It was filmed in and around Los Angeles, the locations being one of the strong suits of the movie. You feel like you're there with Macklin and Cody. This isn't high class, high end mafiosos were talking about, just low-level thugs. Everything from the 1970s boats of cars, the bad suits, the awful style, it all works to perfection here.
I've written before about my love of character actors, and Flynn goes all out here to round out his cast. What was so great about 70s movies was that an actor would take a supporting role that might not require more than a scene or two. They'd make a quick appearance and be gone, but that's just one scene. There would be another and another until you've got all these great names filling out the story. More on the leads later, but the support is as good as it gets. Timothy Carey plays a mob go-between, Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney play mechanic brothers supplying cars for crooks with Sheree North along as McKinney's slutty wife, Felice Orlandi and Tom Reese as two hit men, film noir femme fatale Jane Greer as Macklin's sister-in-law, among many other recognizable faces you'll be watching out for.
Now there's the buddy cop movie, but here there is the buddy crook movie (mostly holding back on the humor). Duvall and Baker make this movie as Macklin and Cody. Duvall is basically the anti-hero of all-time. He didn't have classic good looks, he was a little pudgy, he was balding, but it all adds up nicely. He's an all-around hardass who knows what he wants and doesn't care who gets hurt in the process as long as he gets it. Baker's Cody is a little more laid back but equally capable of handling himself. Like any buddy movie, there's a bond, a link between these two men who know their chances of survival are slim but go ahead anyways. At one point, Macklin says Cody can walk out, no hard feelings. Cody answers in typical tough guy fashion "I want to see how it turns out." It doesn't get much cooler than that in true anti-hero form.
Making what amounts to an extended cameo, Robert Ryan's Mailer of course gets progressively pissed off at these two low-level hoods. That leads to the equivalent of a suicide mission as Macklin and Cody go gunning for him at his heavily guarded estate. The ending is full of tension and some great action, but there's a bit of a cop out in the last scene. No spoilers here, and honestly, it doesn't ruin the movie but I could have thought of a better ending. No DVD available, but if you stumble across this one, plant yourself in a seat, sit back and enjoy.
The Outfit <---TCM clip (1973): *** 1/2 /****