There’s no greater joy for a film writer than to stumble upon, or in this case, be given, a movie you’ve never heard of, and in viewing it, realize you’ve got a gem. The Outside Man (1972) is that gem. I happen to be partial to crime thrillers and Noir, but I am a merciless and harsh watchdog of those genres. If they’re not good, I will eviscerate them. This one has only my enthusiasm.
Set in the very real, gritty streets of early 70’s LA, The Outside Man is a time capsule of that period. For me, growing up in Los Angeles then, I was warmed and wistful at seeing so many iconic locations; used to great effect, all over town. From the Olympic Auditorium’s Thunderbird Roller Derby, to Tower Records on Sunset and even the “yet to be restored” burned out, decaying Venice Pier, the city is the embodiment of a place out of time; the wrong time; a backdrop for activities that have no real base or home.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is the outside man, a contract killer flown in from Paris to shoot a mob boss, then hightail it back home. No mess, no drama; a clean killing. And Trintignent does his job with chilling accuracy and hard-edged business-like dispatch. However, there’s more going on here than meets the eye, as in the best thrillers, and the two witnesses to Trintignent’s murder, the mob boss’s wife and his son, watch as the assassin calmly leaves the Beverly Hills property without giving chase. The news reports identify the killer as a 6’2” blonde surfer type. Trintigent is bewildered, but discovers there are other plans for him when he tries to get his luggage and passport from his hotel and finds his “male secretary” has already checked him out and taken his things. Just as the confused Frenchman heads to his rental car, another hitman targets him, and a gunfight/chase ensues. It’s later revealed Dickinson and the son hired Trintigent to kill the mob boss, so Junior could take over the business, but all loose ends must be tied up, and the killer must disappear.
For its time, The Outside Man moves fast. And its supporting players are a who’s who of the early 70s. Angie Dickinson, sultry and sexy as the widowed mob wife, has a steely veneer, and seems just fine with the surviving boss’ s son, a more age appropriate Umberto Orsini. Ann-Margret, looking amazing in both a fake white wig and flattering funky dresses, is at the height of her skill and beauty. Not to mention a very young Jack Earle Hayley and Georgia Engel (from Mary Tyler Moore) as a son and mother held captive by Trintignant. And because no 70s film would be complete without Mo Green, I mean, Alex Rocco, he’s thrown in for good measure as well.
But the real scene stealer is Roy Scheider. By ’72 he was just coming into his own. Having co-starred a year earlier with Gene Hackman in the iconic actioner The French Connection, and breaking out in strong supporting parts in Paper Lion and Klute, he was not a household name, but a recognizable face. His powerhouse roles in The Seven Ups, Jaws and Marathon Man were still only a couple years away.
In The Outside Man, he is a ruthless killer, an American version of Trintigent. Their cat and mouse game is the engine that drives this vehicle; and although he’s one of the antagonists; his command of any scene he’s in; and his ability to get you on his side with little to no dialogue, is a testament to what an underrated actor he was, and the great things to come. His lithe figure, broken nose and wide, reactive eyes draw you in. You know if you’re in Roy Scheider’s passenger seat, he’s gonna take care of business,
While there are several contrivances that stretch the story’s plausibility (just why is street smart Ann-Margret willing to throw her life away to protect this man she just met and even wish to run away with him?) the action and assured direction hold you for its taut 105 minutes. Director Jacques Deray was a stand-out French filmmaker who excelled at hard-boiled crime films, cutting his teeth in the 60s with Alain Delon actioners. By wisely making his protagonist seem an “outsider” to this exotic and corrupt world of prostitutes and con artists, it played differently in the states where we have all these recognizable touchstones, than it would in France, for whom this film was made, where our customs seem, well, “foreign.”
Interestingly, Director Deray plays the sordid Angeleno characters as very willing to help and be friendly. A prostitute delivers a message for Trintigent, a naked dancer kindly shows Trintigent and Margaret how to escape some killers. It’s actually Trintigent who is the more gruff and unfriendly type who is himself giving the “frogs” (Ann-Margret’s word) a bad name.
The end has a very French resolution, but not after some well choreographed fights, car chases and shoot outs.
You owe it to yourself to check out MGM’s Limited Edition DVD re-issue. As with all their other titles, it’s a barebones offering; without even a scene selection option. But while DVD extras usually weigh-in on my decision to purchase lesser films, The Outside Man is worth your money. The transfer is clean, the sound; passable; the film, amazing.