Although technically a French film (original title: Un homme est mort), the contemplative thriller The Outside Man was shot in America with most of the dialogue spoken in English, and several Hollywood stars appear in the cast, so it plays like a U.S. film with Gallic flair. The picture begins with French hit man Lucien Bellon (Jean-Louis Trintignant) arriving in L.A. to kill a mobster. Bellon performs his task efficiently, but then things get strange when it becomes apparent that an American assassin, Lenny (Roy Scheider), has been hired to whack Bellon. Instead of fleeing back to his homeland, Bellon lingers in California—realizing he’s been used as a pawn in a larger game, Bellon is determined to take out his enemies lest he remain a perpetual target.
Since the French gave us the word ennui, and since that anguished state was the dominant flavor in so many ’70s movies about people searching for meaning in a turbulent world, it’s fitting that a French filmmaker came to America to make a crime picture as cynical as anything from William Friedkin or Walter Hill or Sam Peckinpah. Veteran director Jacques Deray shoots The Outside Man in a minimalistic style, positioning Bellon as a cold-blooded cipher who functions perfectly in an amoral universe so long as his criminal counterparts behave predictably—thus, when his lawless world is jostled, he’s as adrift as everyone else in the topsy-turvy ’70s, desperately grasping for the terra firma of a lost reality that will never return.
If all of this sounds a bit lofty for a hit-man thriller, rest assured that Deray’s thematic implications live mostly in the film’s subtext, since The Outside Man comprises brisk, exciting scenes of Bellon avoiding danger and forming peculiar allegiances. The Gallic gunman’s main crony is a gangland moll named Nancy Robson (Ann-Margret), who provides information and shelter, although Deray accentuates Nancy’s initial reluctance to get pulled into Bellon’s crisis. The movie also features a witty subplot involving a single mother (Georgia Engel) whom Bellon abducts—on top of never demonstrating the hysterics one might expect from someone in her situation, she eventually becomes titillated by the proximity to death, a sly commentary on how starved for excitement “average Americans” can become.
Deray guides his actors toward restrained work that speaks to his theme of people deadened by life’s repetitive rhythms, so the diverse cast feels unified. Trintignant is lethal in a gentlemanly sort of way, Ann-Margret is amiably jaded (and sizzling, thanks to her cleavage-baring dresses), Scheider is elegantly savage, and Engel is subtly funny. (Other featured players include Angie Dickinson, as the murdered gangster’s wife, and a very young Jackie Earle Haley, as the son of Engel’s character.) The Outside Man is saturated with dense ’70s texture, from the brooding funk/jazz score by Michel Legrand to the extensive location photography that captures early-’70s L.A. in all of its sun-baked seediness. This is crime cinema at its most nihilistic, but there’s also a surprising current of human connection running through the story. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
The Outside Man: RIGHT ON