Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Outside Man - JACQUES DERAY - Director

Released 1972

It seems that Los Angeles has come to define the archetypal setting for the B-movie noir. 

This vast flattened metropolis between mountain and sea, host to a web of interminable free-ways and low-rise malls, where the car is king and the pedestrian obsolete. A Ballardian dystopia with no real societal heart but one built for individual perversion. A city where silhouetted figures hidden behind dark shades and laminated glass wind-shields, stare blankly in rapt and silent surveillance. 

It's all there in "Criss-Cross", Bogart and "The Big Sleep". Mitchum's Marlowe. The hysteria of Cloris Leachman in a raincoat racing into the traffic in the backwards titles of "Kiss Me Deadly". Barbara Stanwyck's ice maiden in "Double Indemnity". Altman's hip and hard-faced take of "The Long Goodbye". 1995's "Usual Suspects", even elements of this year's "Drive". Films, actors and imagery that define the genre and place it firmly in Pacific Standard Time. A land where the sun always shines and the shadows stretch into the night.

Now let's consider another title for this list. A film lost between the cracks because it was made by a French director with a French star. "The Outside Man"

Hollywood was built by outsiders who by the end of the pioneering first half of the century, had established the formula for what American cinema actually was. But by the 1960s a new generation of foreign directors emerged who belonged to their own established cultural film industry. With the Hollywood studio system in decline these film makers found opportunities to work in collaboration with the studios and some interesting experiments were produced with L.A. as backdrop. Films like Tony Richardson's "The Loved One" and in particular Jacques Demy's "The Model Shop" stand out as perfect examples of alien eyes finding something new in familiar surroundings. The latter is particularly memorable with its languid plot and enigmatic characters wandering through a city quite transformed by colour and space. But it's the European take on film noir that added something particularly compelling to the American way of doing things. John Boorman's "Point Blank" and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" dropped an un-settling Old World element into the mix creating two of the very finest statements of the whole genre. "The Outside Man" made between the two may not reach the same peaks but it's sprinkled with their magic, matching the re-imagined iconography with a frenetic pace. 

French release
A French hitman delivers a contract to LA's Mr Big, then finds himself hunted cat and mouse across the city by a mysterious assailant.

The diminutive lead Jean-Louis Trintignant didn't really do English language films but he speaks his lines in a stuttering pidgin style that adds a disorientating layer of loneliness to his character's predicament. He is man thrown into culture shock, trapped in a battle with forces unknown. In a desperate need for refuge he holds a family hostage and then nervously joins them for a TV dinner watching "Star Trek". He wanders through the Greyhound Bus Station with it's dollar-slot ranks of personalised TV sets, like a Givenchy-dressed spaceman. Surrounded by neon, he hides out in the booth of a sleazy downtown strip-bar, conspicuously toying with a half-bottle of beaujolais.

Roy attempts a French connection
In another scene he flicks channels with raging ennui, in a probable homage to Lee Marvin's identical scene in "Point Blank". Director Jacques Deray was clearly au fait with Boorman's masterwork even casting Angie Dickinson in a supporting role as an icy black widow. The two films also mine the same sense of arctic detachment from their leads. In "Point Blank" the character of Walker is that film's towering enigma whilst in "The Outside Man" every character seems to be made of stone. The constant hum of the ant-like traffic is as prevalent as any significant dialogue and Roy Scheider fresh from "The French Connection", plays Trintignant's nemesis in virtual silence. They battle it out to the skid of brakes and the "pop" of bullets through a grid-locked Wilshire Boulevard in night time rush-hour. Then there's a showdown under a derelict and soon to be demolished Venice Beach pier complex. A fitting high noon for two men caught "outside" their own shadows.

The man...outside
The only character with any heart is a striking Ann-Margret who puts in a terrific performance as an enticing and sympathetic gangster's moll. A tired habitue of the demi-monde, she hangs around looking for her own ticket out of the maze, throwing in her lot from a position of nothing to lose. Jacques Deray had previously made his name with "La Piscine", a sophisticated cross-plot crime drama, but here he pushes the action relentlessly on making the most of what is a very simplistic plot-line. Every now and then he splashes the film with Michel Legrand's atypical score, the Hammond organ-heavy funk propelling the narrative like the cars. The film wings it's way to an unexpected finale in a scene that could only be carried off by a European Director, indeed it's the most blatantly French moment in the entire film. Deray would concentrate on period crime thrillers for his next few films but none of them match this experiment.

Track this memorably strange film down. It is out there. 


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