A dude in a tapered-collar rayon shirt splashed with tempera blood slo-mo backflips through a window, soundtracked to fuzz bass—this is how loveless parody has abbreviated the ’70s crime drama. But the American action movie is as much a culturally important practice in purity of form as the Japanese tea ceremony, and it was amid the stagflation bummer, in the unchaperoned playground of a decayed film industry, that it found some of its finest, art-for-trash’s-sake expressions.
Searching the vast plains of genre for the perfect trope is exhausting work. You could find a worse scout than the Bronx-born, Jersey-bred William Lustig. Remembered as a director for ’80s nasties dealing in maniacs and vigilantes (Maniac, Vigilante), he has since been a key figure in retrofitting 42nd Street grindhouse to 21st-century home theater at his Blue Underground label, specialists in high-fi DVD lowbrow.
Lustig’s nine-film selection of genre nuggets for Anthology draws out affinities. There’s the expected racial tension, downmarket location shoots, and budget-free no-FX physicality. Cops and criminals alike give lip service to keeping “independent” and impermeable amid conglomerations and stifling organizations (corrupt police brass or the mob). Rank-looking character-actors, a mugshot book of SAG scumbags, fill backroom warrens. They all seem to be festering in the same organism: You could imagine Michael Lerner’s porn shop in Busting paying off Freebie and the Bean‘s honcho Jack Kruschen, who’d have The Stone Killer‘s raggy scarecrow Paul Koslo buy a piece off Emile Meyer’s slushy-voiced gunrunner from The Outfit for a hit in the Juárez cathouse from Rolling Thunder, and so on.
Also very present is the psychic blowback from Southeast Asia. Co-scenarist Paul Schrader translated Taxi Driver to Tex-Mex with 1977’s Rolling Thunder, in which Major Charles Rane (William Devane, impenetrable behind aviator shades) touches down in San Antone, after 2,555 days as a POW, to a wet-blanket countrypolitan theme song, a wife who didn’t wait, and a USA that can’t manufacture convertibles. It’s a boon when some psychopathic home invaders give his life fresh purpose—tracking and killing, with bleary honky-tonk angel Linda Haynes and a bullnecked young Tommy Lee Jones, still looking fit to play tackle. Performances are made crystalline through a sixth sense for camera placement and curt cutting from director John Flynn, whose 2007 passing was little noted, though his no-BS way of laying down a story is a rare commodity in any era.
If the genre man, per shopworn cliché, is a good utility ballplayer, Flynn was Rance Mulliniks. His 1973 The Outfit, which comes no closer to sentiment than communion over a thermos lid of coffee, is Best in Show (this hard, efficient director is the perfect adapter for the hard, efficient “Parker” books by Donald Westlake—another recent R.I.P.): Pridefully taciturn Robert Duvall has a gauntlet to run to exact revenge on kingpin Robert Ryan, but gets on top of every situation with bright-eyed singlemindedness. An ineffable gallery of supporters includes Karen Black, Sheree North, Elisha Cook Jr., Timothy Carey, two ex-heavyweights (Archie Moore and Roland La Starza), and slow-grinnin’ bruiser Joe Don Baker. Baker’s leading-man viability faltered with the Southern drive-ins, when the Dairy Queen demographic got bumped straight-to-video, but he sure sells the small-town detail of Richard Compton’s long-fuse explosive Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, playing a country buck back from Vietnam distinctly failing to readapt to stateside living (“Gonna be strange goin’ back to white women”).
On the barely distinguishable right side of the law, there’s The Stone Killer, the second collaboration between Death Wish‘s Michael “Murky” Winner and grim Tatar Charles Bronson, playing a detective who brightens up his apartment with a print of Goya’s Saturn, on a bicoastal case involving brainwashed veterans. More buoyant are twin 1974 monuments to reckless endangerment in the line of duty: Alan Arkin, passably Mexican, and James Caan, convincingly an asshole, bankshot a succession of Fords through ‘Frisco gridlock and catch hangtime off the Embarcadero Freeway in Freebie, while Busting‘s vice squad dicks, a desperado-mustached Elliott Gould and pre-Baretta Robert Blake, open fire in the packed L.A. Farmers Market, as tyro director and future Timecop auteur Peter Hyams shows off with unchained tracking shots.
Sitting Target, with Oliver Reed behaving unspeakably, is the lone Brit entry, but the oddball in any crowd would be The Outside Man, pairing blowsy Ann-Margret and doleful, contained, neat-as-a-pin Jean-Louis Trintignant, here as a Parisian hitman on business in L.A. The ESL stiltedness shows, but French director Jacques Deray gets good effects from invasive street urchins, armpit Venice Beach and Culver City locations, and alien obsolete innovations (bus station pay-TVs, a rentable men’s-room electric shaver).
The whole of Lustig’s lineup of films was better accepted by double-bill burners than cultural gatekeepers on their first run, their legends kept alive in late-night-TV purgatory. When The Times‘ Vincent Canby brushed off The Outfit as “a 30-Year-Late B-Movie,” he didn’t realize that the “B” springs eternal.