Thursday, February 19, 2009
One Of Those Long, Lingering Things
At times a truly striking collision of cultures in plot, character and style, THE OUTSIDE MAN has to be one of the oddest yet most engaging crime films of the early 70s. With its brutal action, oddball humor and unique look at life in Southern California, you’d think the film would have achieved a considerable following by now, but it seems practically unknown and has never been released on DVD. I’d never even heard so much as a mention of the title until I saw a clip of the film in the documentary LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF a few years ago and the last time it played at the American Cinematheque I wound up not going. It was my loss. The next time something like GET CARTER or THE LIMEY plays, this would be an ideal choice to pair with them.
French hitman Lucien Ballon (Jean-Louis Trintignant) arrives in L.A. to perform a hit. After checking in at the Beverly Hilton, he heads to the Beverly Hills address in question where, shortly after meeting the man’s wife (Angie Dickinson) does exactly what he went there to do. He leaves the property without incident but when he returns to the hotel, finds that he has been checked out. With his belongings gone (including, most importantly, his passport) he soon finds himself on the run from another hired killer (Roy Scheider) and heads off into the strange city of L.A. where he must seek out the mysterious woman (Ann-Margret) who may be the only person who can help him.
It seems significant that the opening credits of THE OUTSIDE MAN play over a helicopter shot of downtown L.A., taken from a vantage point that I at first couldn’t quite place. Yet as the shot continued it eventually settled on a part of the freeway that I instantly recognized from driving through countless times. That pretty much states in a nutshell the Los Angeles that is presented here—unrecognizable, yet completely familiar once you really start to look at it. Directed by Jacques Deray and written by Deray, Jean-Claude Carrière and Ian McLellan Hunter, it’s mostly in English and features a number of recognizable American actors but it would still probably be correct to think of this as a French film that just happens to be set in America, but that’s not to say that it’s some kind of existential art piece. It just feels somehow different, even in ways that you can’t entirely put into words and it’s very much shown to us through eyes that are unfamiliar with this landscape, with moments that seem to pause as we and the main character take in these unusual surroundings. It fits right in with Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT and Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP as movies with a unique viewpoint made by foreigners about L.A. But unlike those, as well as a few others, THE OUTSIDE MAN doesn’t feels like it’s passing any sort of judgement on the city, good or bad, instead looking at the city as a completely alien landscape for our hero. He doesn’t understand this terrain one bit, but he has to navigate it somehow if he’s ever going to get away. Though it would be correct to describe it as a French crime film shot in L.A., it’s not some kind of POINT BLANK-type existential art piece. It just feels somehow different, with an odd look at the landscape that leads to some truly unique L.A. location shooting, from the streets of Beverly Hills to the bars of downtown to the tiny apartments of Venice, leading to a foot chase that ends in the abandoned and dilapidated Pacific Ocean Park. One of the oddest little bits involves Ballon using a coin-operated razor in a public restroom—it’s hard to imagine that such a think once existed. It’s such a striking look at what the town was back then that I can imagine the film almost being an emotional experience for somebody who grew up in the city during this period. In one sequence Trintignant’s character, looking for a place to hide, carjacks a woman played by Georgia Engel (already an odd casting choice for this kind of film) and has her take him to her apartment on the Sunset Strip in the building that used to be located next to Tower Records (which I don’t think was ever residential) where we meet her son played by a very young Jackie Earle Haley and the hitman winds up on their couch watching “Star Trek” with them--about as odd a juxtaposition of personalities as I could possibly imagine. The film is filled with odd touches like that within the tension of the hitman plotline and many of the bit roles almost seem deliberately cast with people who might have been appearing in sitcoms around this time, such as John Hillerman’s department store manager who consoles widow Angie Dickinson on her husband’s violent death by bizarrely saying that “At least it wasn’t one of those long, lingering things.” The line readings by many of these personalities and how it clashes with Trintignant’s deadpan lead means that things feel consistently off—as if it’s the director’s own take on what Angelenos, or maybe just Americans in general, are like. It’s interesting that THE OUTSIDE MAN adds these touches yet still manages to come off very much as a no-nonsense crime film, albeit an odd one, with extremely well-done action and chase scenes, unusual characters and a badass score by Michel Legrand (what other times have badass and Michel Legrand ever gone together?) as well as a surprising amount of sleaze.
Jean-Louis Trinitignant, star of THE CONFORMIST and Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS: RED, is a steady, composed screen presence that gets us to continually wonder what he could possibly be thinking as he takes in the bizarre sights in front of him. In this context, he’s as unfamiliar to us as this American landscape is unfamiliar to him and it makes for a unique identification with a lead character, even one who is a killer. Roy Scheider, in that period between THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS, is ultra-ultra-cool as the opposing hitman, with relatively few lines spread throughout the picture and the way he plays certain scenes feel consistently unexpected. For any fan of Scheider’s out there who hasn’t seen this, this performance would come has a huge surprise. Ann-Margret, given a memorable introduction wearing a tiny, very low-cut white dress while sporting a white wig is fairly stunning and just about as good as I’ve ever seen her. She also says “shit” an awful lot which is kind of surprising, as is the scene where she gets violently roughed up by Scheider—they’d play husband and wife over a decade later in 52 PICK-UP. Angie Dickinson, looking like she’s about to enter her POLICE WOMAN phase, doesn’t have as good a role and comes off as pretty stiff at times, but she does provide an appropriate connection to POINT BLANK and has one terrific moment where she sees a certain person in an unexpected place and has absolutely no idea what to do about it. In addition to the familiar faces mentioned above, Alex Rocco also appears in a key role as does Talia Shire, who is unrecognizable but it’s obvious who it is the second she begins to speak. Connie Kreski, once a Playboy playmate, makes a memorable appearance as a streetwalker who says to Trinitignant, “I’m sorry we didn’t make it. I like your accent.” The cool title song that plays over the opening credits is sung by Joe Morton, presumably the actor of the same name. At the very least, it sounds like him.
THE OUTSIDE MAN doesn’t quite hold up until the very end—the climax set in a funeral home involving the corpse that is positioned upright probably sounded more interesting in concept, with a shootout that isn’t very well blocked out along with an end which feels like it’s striving for an existential significance that it hasn’t quite earned. It still works as an extremely satisfying crime thriller nevertheless but more important than that it’s just…kind of weird. The plot always keeps the viewer on its toes, never entirely letting on which way it’s going to go next. There aren’t many other crime films quite like THE OUTSIDE MAN. If the Cinematheque shows it again, I’ll be there. And I’ll bring people with me so they can see it too.