It’s the monthly Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, when blogger Mike’s Take on the Movies assigns me a movie I’ve never seen and vice versa.
This month’s assignment was The Outfit (1973), which I turned into a triple feature by its director, John Flynn, who also did the great Rolling Thunder (1977).
The Outfit finds Robert Duvall fresh out of prison with a contract on his head because of a bank he robbed with his brother. It was part of the organization run by Robert Ryan, who’s already killed said brother, so Duvall sets out for revenge on the Outfit with the help of girlfriend Karen Black and ex-partner Joe Don Baker. They gather connections, weapons and money needed to go to war, they shake down several of the syndicate operations, bump off or intimidate underlings, meet with useful old friends and unexpected obstacles. These colourful characters are played by the likes of Richard Jaeckel, Elisha Cook Jr., Tim Carey, Marie Windsor, Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Emile Meyer, Bill McKinney, and Sheree North, a deep cast that enriches this cool, gritty, methodical Richard Stark/Donald Westlake “Parker” adaptation. Even with all these stars, the focus stays on the close and convincing bond between Duvall and Baker. They have smooth, professional timing when plans work out, and can read each other and improvise when things go bad. The way they squeak out of the final shootout is a treat. Ryan is great as the miserable mob boss (even his enticing young wife Joanna Cassidy annoys him) whose fury at his crew’s incompetence grows the closer Duvall gets to him. Just as Jane Greer warned Duvall, money isn’t as valuable as love and time.
Next is Flynn’s vigilante justice story Defiance (1980), an urban western set in NY’s East Village, in which Jan-Michael Vincent is a merchant seaman waiting out his suspension in a once-friendly neighbourhood being ruined by the “Souls” gang. Vincent just wants to learn Spanish for his next job, buy some art supplies and mind his own business, but he gets involved when he befriends the locals and when the violence hits him personally. Shopkeeper Art Carney is bullied, sweet retired boxer Lenny Montana is murdered, and worst of all, the rooftop garden installed for the pleasure of tenants like Theresa Saldana and streetwise kid Fernando Lopez is mercilessly stomped on. Vincent and other fed-up neighbours (Danny Aiello, Frank Pesce, Tony Sirico, Don Blakely) finally spearhead a dramatic and satisfying street fight with surprise reinforcements and people pitching food and who knows what else from windows and fire escapes. Slow burning cult movie fun, with surprisingly little graphic violence, light moments like a giant fish toss and the kid dragging adults to an X-rated movie, and Vincent in his prime as a brooding and genial loner hero.
In Best Seller (1987), Brian Dennehy survives a robbery and shooting during a police evidence depository holdup. The only clue to the unsolved crime is a bunch of circular marks on the shooter’s hand. Dennehy writes a hit book about the experience while keeping his job at LAPD (a la Joseph Wambaugh). Years pass and one day, he finds himself stalked by a helpful hit man (James Woods) who worms his way into Dennehy’s life and offers the now-widowed single father some juicy material for his next best seller: an expose of the magnate (Paul Shenar) for whom Woods was a longtime contract killer. Dennehy allays his skepticism by travelling with Woods to confirm his stories, and it helps that Woods can slickly explain anything, even his involvement in the depository holdup, when Dennehy sees him pressing lit cigarettes into his hand. Implausible odd-buddy relationship, so good action and acting go a long way, with just the right amount of reluctance, distaste, bragadoccio and, by the end, mutual respect, between these men from the opposite sides of the law.