Sunday, July 19, 2009

"The Inside Man"

The French director Jacques Deray had an international hit with the period gangster film Borsalino, starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. That probably helps account for his getting to make The Outside Man, a thriller whose special appeal derives in part from its outsider's look at both Los Angeles and the kinds of movies that grow there. The movie, whose script is credited to Deray, Jean-Claude Carrière (who also worked on Borsalino as well as Belle de Jour, That Obscure Object of Desire, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Return of Martin Guerre, and Godard's Every Man for Himself) and Ian McLellan Hunter (an English writer best known for serving as a front for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo on Roman Holiday), is notable for being the only movie I know of to lure Jean-Louis Trintignant to the States. (The only other English-language production I've ever seen him in, 1983's Under Fire, was set in Nicaragua and shot in Mexico.)

Trintignant plays a hit man who is seen arriving in L.A. and taking a cab from the airport to the accompaniment of a blaxploitation-worthy song, with a vocalist named Joe Morton braying a catalog of the never-ending headaches that go with being an outside man. (Despite extensive research, I have been unable to determine whether this is the Joe Morton, star of stage and screen. But based on the sound of the singer's voice and the state of Morton's career circa 1972, I will list the possibility that it is him as "plausible" until given reason to believe otherwise.) He has been flown in to dispatch a leathery old gangster (played, in his final performance, by the veteran movie tough guy Ted de Corsia, of such second-string noir classics as The Naked City, The Enforcer, and The Big Combo), a task he performs before the movie has hit the fifteen minute mark. For a minute there I thought this was going to be one short movie. Luckily, Trintignant has been hired by the kind of people who think that allowing the smart professional killer who has done the job you flew him in from Paris to do simply get on the next plane and go back home makes less sense than hiring Roy Scheider to run all over creation trying to kill him. No wonder that former gangsters ranging from George Raft to Henry Hill in professional experience have had no trouble making sense of how they do things in Hollywood.

The Outside Man is a deep-dish slice of early '70s crime movie, but with a slightly askew line of sight. Not until Quentin Tarantino hit the ground running had an L.A. movie shot in so many locations that no one had ever thought to include in a movie before, and never would again. A traveler, not a tourist, Deray revels in the kind of everyday, billboards-and-storefronts tackiness that most Hollywood filmmakers would shell out thousands of dollars to get the locals to cover up. On the run from Sheriff Brody, Trintignant carjacks Georgia Engel, Ted Baxter's girlfriend, in the parking lot of a Safeway and holds up with her and her mouthy little boy (played by Rorshach himself, Jackie Earle Haley) in their apartment, which looks as if it should be in black and white, with a pool of blood on the carpet and a caption crediting the photograph to Weegee. Having sampled the wonders of American TV and broken the world record for enduring Jackie Earle Haley's company, Trintignant commandeers a vehicle and hits the highway. He picks up a hitchhiking hippie who expresses concern for his soul. "Lis'sen, fren'", says Trintignant, "evert'ing is just fine between me and Jesus." Unconvinced, the hippie continues to lecture Trintignant on the importance of beign saved. Then he notices that Roy Scheider is in the next lane and has a gun pointed at them. "Jesus!" says the hippies, just before Trintignant ducks and Scheider puts a bullet between his eyes. I hope that answers any questions you had about why a man in Trintignant's position would be picking up hitchhikers.

The Jesus freak scene is probably The Outside Man's funniest moment, but nothing can prepare you for the wild and woolly climax, with Trintignant flying in his own reinforcements and using them to crash Ted de Corsia's funeral, "crash" being the operative word. The funeral parlor scene is brightened by a funny cameo by Talia Shire as a chatty cosmetician, and George Engel is a hoot: long after you think she's gone from the movie, the cops keep bringing her back, every time somebody is killed, to ask her if it's the guy who abducted her, and of course it's always somebody else. (She eulogizes Scheider thusly: "I mean, he was polite and all, but he had a gun.") It's too bad that Ann-Margret, as a bartender who becomes Trintignant's helpmate, doesn't bring too much to the party; she acts awfully grand for somebody who works in a strip bar wearing what looks like a fifty-pound marshmallow on her head. (Or, for that matter, somebody who co-starred in Viva Las Vegas.) But Angie Dickinson is in fine, cougariffic form as the murdered mobster's wife, who appears to have had him whacked so that she can move in on both his money and her stepson. The Outside Man is ready to do whatever it takes to to pump some life back into its genre, whether it's put Angie in a bikini, deliver Georgette to a crime scene, or drag Trintignant to the roller derby. As Larry David says, whatever works.

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