Monday, August 5, 2013

The Outside Man

If one day Jean Paul Sartre decided to fly to Los Angeles and shoot a crime drama, it would probably look a lot like 1972's THE OUTSIDE MAN. Director Jacques Deray's moody effort earns comparison with the finest U.S. West Coast noirs, right up to Robert Altman's caustic take on Philip Marlowe, THE LONG GOODBYE, released a year later. The locations become as, if not more, important than the players. But what an unusual cast.

Aside from leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant, playing a French hitman named Lucien who comes to L.A. to rub out a mobster, most of the main actors in THE OUTSIDE MAN are Americans.  Consider Ann-Margaret as Nancy, the mobster's mistress. And Roy Scheider as Lenny, a second hitman hired to eliminate Lucien. Or Angie Dickinson, so perfectly cast as the mobster's widow, a really duplicitous dame, as they say in this genre. Georgia Engel, best known for her lovably dopey housewives on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Everybody Loves Raymond, plays a very similar character here. In fact, I wonder if the MTM team cast her based on her highly entertaining turn, as a loopy woman who is kidnapped by Lucien and then later basks in her new found fame in front of TV cameras.

The story takes a few turns, mostly standard stuff about rival organizations puppeteering their employees and associated gang warfare. Lucien spends most of the film dodging Lenny's firearms and resisting Nancy's feminine wiles as he tries to unravel the puzzle. There is much mileage out of the "fish out of water" genre, with Lucien's stone faced bewilderment in this most peculiar of places, with its motorcycle gangs and prostitutes and proselytizing hippie hitchhikers.

Intrigue is maintained most of the while, but what really distinguishes this film is its local color. L.A. as itself.  Or rather, as it was in a less complicated time.  When ample remnants of old Hollywood were still to be found. A city filled with considerable character, from Bel Air mansions to saloons that wouldn't be out of place in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Deray casts a wide eye, seeing this familiar place as foreigners often do, with more attention to detail and social mores. Also, the time period (did people really use public electric shavers in men's rooms??) He's as observant as Louis Malle (ATLANTIC CITY, for one), and not as dismissive of spy plotting as Altman. Deray is also clearly more interested in highlighting if not creating iconic imagery. Not just the usual landmarks. The sleazy walk up apartments, the rusty seaside haunts, drive-in movie theater parking lots. If this movie were remade today, it might as well be set entirely in Venice Beach, where the grime just continues to ooze.   This is what Deray is fascinated by. How the landscapes are appropriate backdrops and virtually mimic the broken down souls who inhabit them. He's both an excited first time tourist and a jaded local.

Interspersed within THE OUTSIDE MAN are some very curious moments, lots of low key humor, not the least of which is a shootout in a funeral parlor around the deceased mobster, who's embalmed in the sitting position with a cigar in his hand. It's one of the most amusing scenes I've watched lately, though (maybe not so) curiously, the moment is not edited for maximum impact, for action movie thrill seeking. It's just another absurd event in a bleak, existential space. But the final scene - that is straight out of the great tradition of French existentialism.

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