Two of the earliest books that I can remember reading – and fully appreciating – are Ray Bradbury’s stellar ‘The Martian Chronicles’ and Mickey Spillane’s ‘I, The Jury.’ While one I was introduced to in an early high school literature class (I’m sure you can figure out which of those two fits that bill), the other I picked off the shelves of a second-hand bookstore that operated briefly on the edge of town. Mike Hammer’s seminal tale of vengeance introduced me to the world of private detectives – hot dames, blazing pistols, and fistfights aplenty – and, to a degree, that choice drove me to eventually expand my film tastes into criminal thrillers, gangster pictures, and Film Noir. Lo and behold, I came to know that there was a whole world out there that looked just like the one Spillane captured in print; and I’ve never looked back in my pursuit of finding another entry to whet my whistle with regards to street justice being dispensed from the business end of a revolver.
To some extent, I’ll concede that not all of the stories that resonate with me (or fans of similar fare) translate well to film; and that’s kinda/sorta the case with today’s entry, a mostly forgotten crime yarn called The Outside Man (1972). Written (in part) and directed by Jacques Deray, there’s a slow-burning fuse sparking theatrically to the story of dueling hitmen whose trajectories overlap when one – Lenny (as played by Roy Scheider) – gets hired to take out the other – Lucien Bellon (revered French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant) and will stop at nothing that gets in the way. They collide and escape one another across a handful of hours – running, shooting, racing, ducking, and swinging – but eventually team-up (albeit briefly) in an attempt to make sense of some of the story’s senselessness. While I’m not entirely convinced all of what’s detailed amounts to perfect narrative logic, this remains a picture grounded by two big performances set in a surprisingly gritty Los Angeles, a city that’s unlikely to let either of them out alive … if it knows what’s good for them.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“After fulfilling a contract killing in Los Angeles, a French hit man becomes the target of a hit himself and tries to flee back to Paris.”
Honestly, I sat down with The Outside Man mostly because it was a film I’d surprisingly never even heard of.
As one can imagine, the beauty of this approach is that I really had zero idea of what to expect – well, except for what scant reading I could find on this mostly forgotten flick – and I think it helped increase my overall excitement for what I found. Writer/director Jacques Deray – whom I’ve had modest experience exposure to in watching 1970’s Borsalino (reviewed here) – does a better-than-affable job pushing a relatively simple story of two hitmen in pursuit of their respective end games – linked only by their shared desire to survive – and the film rises and falls on the merits of what’s captured almost perfunctorily on camera. It isn’t lush visuals or tightly conceived images to any degree, nor is there any complex character study performed on either lead; like the two craftsmen just doing what they do best, there’s an effortlessness to the flow that only gets interrupted with an occasional sequence that stretches on a bit longer than needed for art’s sake.
The assassin Bellon is hired to fly into Los Angeles for a day to perform a single contract kill of Victor Kovacs (Ted de Corsia), a California-based mobster who has apparently made more than a few enemies along the way. Once the deed is done, the hitman returns to his hotel room only to discover things surprisingly amiss: he’s been checked out of the place with no further instructions, and a strange man – Lenny – is now tailing him around the city. It isn’t long before bullets are exchanged between the two adversaries, and Bellon realizes he’s been set-up by someone intended to ultimately get him out of the way, all of which might just lead back to the younger Alex Kovacs (Umberto Orsini) and his stepmother/lover Jackie (Angie Dickinson) who have conspired to pry the criminal empire from Victor’s grasp.
Proving that there’s little new under the sun, The Outside Man plays out in somewhat predictable fashion here and there. A goodly portion of the film is chase sequences – Bellon remains a fish-out-of-water always searching for a safe place to land, and he spends screen time fleeing the always just-on-his-heels Lenny. Given that so many stronger entries have used such a pursuit to fill up a film, this one could’ve benefitted from Deray giving it a bit more cinematic flavor, but that isn’t the case. Sadly, the usually picturesque L.A. isn’t given the kind of spectacular backdrop that it’s received elsewhere, especially from some of the best of the 1960’s and 1970’s releases; and – in fairness – Outside winds up feeling like a basic crime story that could’ve taken place in any of the U.S.’s bigger cities if not, even, somewhere abroad. A few interesting places are chosen – a blighted city block that looks like it’s been the aftermath of a bomb attack; some piers along the shoreline; etc. – but, overall, there isn’t much distinctiveness to the environs here.
But I’d be a fool if I failed to point out how well both Trintignant and Scheider make for polar opposites in this bad-versus-badder premise. Both men have a coolness about them – a sense of detachment from the world-at-large and what role they play in it – that elevates the picture just about every time it begins to wind down with inactivity. It’s a master class in minimalism – so far as acting goes – with each man allowing his facial expressions to convey the level of focus, disgust, aggravation, and even disinterest as they hop from one scene to the next, always accomplishing far more with far less than their contemporaries might’ve brought to their respective roles. Such technique might not work with all audiences, and yet those of us who love to spend our time with such pursuits? It’s a work of genius that deserves to have the brutal and uncompromising light of day – a brilliance in which no one can hide – thrown across the canvas.
Still, those who live life on the edge ultimately are destined to perhaps be forgotten except by those who knew them best. This sentiment is visually captured by Deray in the last reel when the deceased Kovacs is put on – cough cough – funereal display in a private ceremony for closest friends and family. Instead of the usual open-coffin ritual, the mobster spends his final hours arranged seated in an ornate chair (consider it his throne), his face a bit pasty, with one arm extended slightly with a customary cigar pointing the way into the afterlife. Few of us would ask to be remembered this way by those we met along the long, long road of life, but it’s a fitting, Mafiosi-style, ‘final wishes’ send-off between the men and women who see themselves bigger-than-life-itself and refuse to meet the ‘Great Thereafter’ lying on their backs in some holy God-forsaken crypt.
Move aside, Saint Peter. This resting place is now under guidance and protection of one Victor Kovacs.
And you might wanna lose the halo.
When compared to the other crime pictures of its day – The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), or Chinatown (1974) – I think it’s easy to see how even a lesser gem like The Outside Man (1972) may’ve been overlooked in the passage of time. It has no signature performance, nor does it boast any paradigm-shifting theatrical sequence that deserves, say, a shot-by-shot comparison besides the competition. Where those other films went for creative flourish, Outside Man pays far more attention to the stewardship of a lean-and-mean nuts-and-bolts progression. What it does have is a fabulous tete a tete between screen villains – Scheider and Trintignant – that keeps the wheels turning, even when a wobble here and there threatens to derail the forward motion. Their sizzle was done inside – not the outside – thus sacrificing crowd appeal in favor of pleasing only purists who dig the vibe … and even that’s assuming they can find this picture in a world that’s probably forgotten it even existed … much like these fate these two hitmen suffered.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of The Outside Man by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.