Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) is barely out of prison when his girl, Bett (Karen Black), tells him his brother’s been killed. Worse, she’s partially responsible. Worse yet, he’s next. When his would-be killer comes through the door, Macklin jumps him, ties him up and puts the proverbial screws to him. Turns out he and his brother robbed the wrong bank, and the organization whose money went missing wants payback. So begins Earl’s epic excursion against the Outfit, a crime syndicate that controls half of the country.
Before the real dirty work begins, Earl hooks up with his old partner-in-crime, Cody (Joe Don Baker); then, with Bett along for the ride (he’s forgiven her), they start to rob the Outfit one money-laundering operation at a time, sending word that, come a $250,000 payoff, they’ll stop. At first, they’re a minor annoyance, something for the hired guns to handle; but when they get within spitting distance of the boss, Mailer (Robert Ryan), it’s war. After agreeing to the payoff, Mailer double-crosses Earl and Cody, setting up an ambush at what was supposed to be the drop point. Big mistake: the payoff would have gotten Mailer off cheap; instead, Earl and Cody escape and redouble their efforts, risking everything in their attempt to tumble the Outfit.
This is a really good gangster movie, with a wonderful only-in-the-Seventies cast. In addition to the stars, it’s got some great character actors, including Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor (both from Kubrick’s The Killing). It’s taken from a novel by Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark), who also provided source material for Point Blank, The Grifters and The Stepfather (as well as Godard’s Made In U.S.A., which I haven’t seen). Its aesthetic minimalism (due to funding issues, apparently) only adds to the feeling of authenticity – ratty motel rooms, dive bars, chop shops… you can almost smell the cigarettes and cheap cologne. The underdog, guerilla quality of Earl and Cody, two relatively small-time hoods engaged in a battle of principle against an extremely well-funded, well-armed organization, makes them immensely appealing, and gives The Outfit a buddy film aspect you might not expect. Unfortunately, The Outfit is only available on VHS, an issue that MGM should really rectify in the near future.