The underrated action director John Flynn (ROLLING THUNDER) adapted Donald E. Westlake’s 1963 novel THE OUTFIT for MGM, changing the protagonist’s name from Parker to Earl Macklin in the process.
The screenplay is refreshingly free of excess baggage, outside of Karen Black’s superfluous turn as Macklin’s woman, and Flynn turns it into a lean, tough crime drama jammed with punchy dialogue, quick violence, and a wry sense of humor. Robert Duvall (a year after THE GODFATHER) and WALKING TALL’s Joe Don Baker are an efficient team that harkens back to the day when badasses could make a stronger statement with a .38 than later wannabe-tough guys could with an armory of automatic weapons.
Macklin (Duvall) is a bank robber just out of the joint who quickly learns “the Outfit” has gunned down his brother and partner in a heist. One of the gunmen (Felice Orlandi, playing a guy named Orlandi) tries to nail Earl too, but fails, earning a glass bottle smashed across his face.
Orlandi tells Earl the hits have been ordered by mobster Mailer (Robert Ryan, who died of cancer the year THE OUTFIT came out) in retaliation for the Macklin brothers knocking off a bank filled with Outfit money. Earl decides to go on offense, picking up Jack Cody (Baker), the third partner in the heist, and busting up Outfit money drops all over California until Mailer ponies up a hefty ransom.
In addition to crafting a nifty noir scenario and directing tautly (with strong help from action coordinator Ronnie Rondell), Flynn assembled a remarkable supporting cast that deserves its own paragraph: Richard Jaeckel (THE DIRTY DOZEN), Sheree North (CHARLEY VARRICK), Timothy Carey, Bill McKinney, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Jane Greer, Joanna Cassidy, Henry Jones, Tony Young, Roy Jenson, Tom Reese, Jeannine Riley, and boxer Archie Moore.
Not having read Westlake’s novel (written under his regular pseudonym of Richard Stark), I can’t say how many clever little touches are original to the film. I love the matter-of-fact manner in which these underworld figures relate, because dishing out death is just a job of work to them. Hence, Duvall acquiescing to Orlandi’s request for a hankerchief for his bloody face and Jenson’s request to be belted on the left side of his head because of a bad right ear. Macklin’s mission is nothing personal. Until he reaches Mailer, that is.