The Outside Man is kind of a French Existentialist spin on the
international intrigue thrillers which were so popular in the 60s and 70s, in
the wake of Bondmania. The action takes place in Los Angeles, is almost completely in English, and
features a cast of familiar American faces, but the director and screenwriters are
French, and the film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as a ruthless assassin who
flies in from Europe to assassinate a crime boss living in the lap of L.A.
luxury. That's not the essence of the movie, however. In fact, there's no tension
or gravitas associated with that assassination because J-LT succeeds rather too easily, and
because we just don't
have any reason to regret the death of anyone without a back story, let alone
a violent criminal.
The real heart of the movie lies in the assassin's attempt to get back to his
home base. When he returns to his hotel from his mission at the crime boss's
estate, he finds that someone else has impersonated him long enough to check
him out of the hotel and steal his remaining possessions, including his passport.
The assassin is, in essence,
stranded in Los Angeles, and soon discovers that he himself is being stalked
by another killer (Roy Scheider), one whose motivations are unknown. He's not
sure whom to call for assistance, because it is possible that his own
employers are the ones who hired the other killer to dispose of him. Or not.
He must therefore find a way to get a new passport and get on a plane back to
Europe while making his way through L.A. beneath the radar of his stalker.
The film's most effective element is the cat-and-mouse chase between Roy
Scheider and Trintignant, which occasionally produces the same kind of tension generated by
the one-on-one pursuit in No Country for Old Men. But there's a key difference
between the two pursuits. In No Country for Old Men, we actually root for the
mouse. He's just a regular guy being pursued by a seemingly unstoppable
sociopath, so his fear and tension become our own in the best part of the
film. In contrast, the heart of The Outside Man consists of two cold-blooded killers
wearing expensive suits while trying to kill one another, so it is difficult to care what happens to either of
them. We may enjoy their chess game from time to time, but we are not heavily
invested in the outcome.
In the case of both films, the principal failing is
that the end of that chase is not the end of the film, which makes everything
after it anticlimactic. No Country for Old Men drifted away from taut
thrills into philosophical rumination, by shifting the focus to a third
character (the sheriff following both the cat and the mouse). The Outside Man
shifted directions just as dramatically, but took a completely different turn.
The film climaxes with a mass gunfight at the funeral of the slain crime boss, all
punctuated with a strong undercurrent of ludicrous visuals and dialogue, as if
the film's final reel had been lifted from a Theatre of the Absurd play by Ionesco.
the French. What would we do without them?
Although The Outside Man has some
good moments, it also includes some embarrassingly laughable scenes. The legal
authorities in the film are universally inept and inconsequential throughout
the film, almost to the point where the L.A. police look like the Keystone
Kops, while the two assassins are discharging serious amounts of firepower in
the city. Overall, The Outside Man is not especially worth your time based on
its merit alone. On the other hand, baby boomers may find this film enjoyable
because of the way it
fills the minimum daily requirement for 1970s nostalgia. In addition to Roy Scheider as the
mysterious assassin, the cast features Ann-Margret, Angie Dickinson, Alex
Rocco, Talia Shire, John Hillerman, and Georgette from the Mary Tyler Moore
Show. That cast is not exactly the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it does generate
the sort of comfortable familiarity one feels at a family reunion. Other
points of interest include a performance from Jackie Earle Haley as a child actor, and
an often jarring musical score from Michel Legrand.