There’s an old interview with Quentin Tarantino (featured on the 10th anniversary RESERVOIR DOGS DVD) where he offers an example of how he likes to twist conventional genre moments by allowing banal reality to intrude on them: “Cops are chasing after a character down the street. The character’s running down the street. They commandeer a car, throw the person out, jump in the car, but it’s a stick shift and they don’t drive a stick. Okay? That’s real life…” Moments like that helped to make Tarantino’s early neo-noir films cultural touchstones, but he certainly wasn’t the first to use the strategy. After rewatching French filmmaker Jacques Deray’s unjustly overlooked 1972 neo-noir THE OUTSIDE MAN recently, I couldn’t help but think of the Tarantino quote. The film is memorable and potent because it ably blends familiar genre characters and standard crime movie tropes with surprising everyday details, undermining its audience’s expectations with understated wit.
Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Lucien Bellon, a French hitman who arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the Beverly Hilton, and promptly receives orders via telephone to kill someone named Victor Kovacs. Bellon succeeds in his task with suspicious ease – he gets into the Kovacs house without a hitch and escapes just as easily, though Kovacs’ wife and son are both home – only to discover that his passport has been stolen, his rental car tires have been slashed, and he’s being chased by another hitman, Lenny, played with droll menace by Roy Scheider. Bellon is stuck in L.A. with no contacts, no understanding of the terrain, and a killer on his tail. Here’s where Deray and his co-writers really start to have fun: with nowhere to turn, their sharp-dressed hitman waits in the backseat of a car in a grocery store parking lot and, gun in hand, instructs Mrs. Barnes, a beleaguered young mother, to take him home with her. Unable to get through to his contact in Paris on his first try, Bellon eats dinner with Mrs. Barnes and her son Eric (played by a very young Jackie Earle Haley), with the latter character drowning Bellon’s dinner in ketchup as an attempt to be helpful. Bellon watches Star Trek with the pair until the telephone operator calls back. These jarringly mundane details give THE OUTSIDE MAN much of its charm.
The film finds humor in its supporting players – the regular people who stumble into the game of cat-and-mouse between the two hitmen. Given a temporary reprieve from being ordinary civilians, Mrs. Barnes and Eric relish their roles in the caper. Once the press catches on to the story, Mrs. Barnes eagerly details the menu from her dinner with Bellon for TV reporters, saying, “I served him chicken cacciatore with wine and mushrooms and all. I mean knowing he was French and he wasn’t in any mood…” Later, when summoned to a crime scene to identify a body, she wonders, “Where’s the television people?” There’s also a bit where Eric rides his school bus with his very own police escort, looking a little smug at his own importance. During one of many chase scenes, one of the characters gets a tip from a small child, who cheerfully points her in the right direction. Even the film’s startling funeral sequence – which features the surreal sight of a corpse embalmed sitting up – comes back down to reality with some humorous banter from the funeral home’s makeup artist, played by Talia Shire in a relatively early role.
The greatest irony in a film that’s rife with them might be the trajectory of Bellon’s relationship with Nancy Robson (played by Ann-Margret), a bartender at a topless bar who becomes his unlikely ally. In a more conventional film, Bellon and Nancy would surely fall in love, but Bellon is too detached for the two to build a real connection. There’s a moment where the pair are at LAX, with Bellon preparing to finally leave town. Nancy begins a sincere goodbye speech to Bellon (“I’ll make this easy…”), but she’s almost completely drowned out by the sounds of automated airport announcements and airplanes taking off. She tells Bellon to just “turn and go,” planting an unreciprocated kiss on him. He follows her command with such a lack of emotion that one can’t help but laugh. The film is fiercely unsentimental; particularly when it reaches its abrupt conclusion, one that leaves Nancy waiting for a Hollywood ending that never materializes.
THE OUTSIDE MAN identifies its location, Los Angeles, with onscreen text before announcing any of its stars or the film’s title, and the city and its denizens are indeed a vivid part of the story. Notably, while the film opens with scenes in a luxury hotel and at a Beverly Hills mansion, Deray quickly takes us to supermarket parking lots, tacky nightclubs, claustrophobic apartments, and in one eye-catching sequence, a ruined pier. The film ventures past L.A.’s glamour, visiting locations that are sometimes gritty and sometimes just humdrum. The settings reflect the film’s flair for the ordinary yet unexpected, as well as its sharp sense of humor. For fans of L.A. noir, THE OUTSIDE MAN is a film to seek out.