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The Outside Man
(a.k.a. Un Homme Est Mort)
(1972)

Director: Jacques Deray 
Cast:
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Ann-Margret, Roy Scheider


Right from the first minute that you exit your mother and enter the delivery room, the world can sure seem like an overwhelming place to live in. There is so much to observe, so many different people and things to interact with, it can be hard to keep everything straight in your mind. For most people, the best thing you can do in your first few years is to go slow. First, start with the people and things that are immediate and frequent, and learn more about them. After a while, you can then start looking at the parts of the world that are more distant from you. That's more or less what I did. I must admit, however, that when I started to learn about foreign lands and foreign people, what I observed was sometimes downright puzzling. I repeatedly learned that the French would wear berets and zebra-striped shirts, and dine on odd things like frogs' legs. The Germans would wear hats with feathers in them, and they would like to say, "Oh, that is good!" And when it came to the Mexicans, they were always wearing sombreros, sporting very big mustaches, and guzzling down bottles of tequila. Now, I didn't immediately accept these claims when I heard them. I was a pretty smart kid, and I knew at best such claims were wild exaggerations. The claims that these and other ethnic groups acted in such ways seemed to be ridiculous to me, and most people are at least smart enough to know how to present themselves in a way that doesn't invite ridicule. But despite this, the popular media that I would observe would frequently portray foreigners like those with stereotypes such as those.

The question that inevitably got into my mind was why these stereotypes persisted. I eventually came to the conclusion that one reason may be that learning everything about a foreign culture can be long and hard work. If you can hang onto a few generalizations - even if they are false - you can feel like you know it all. And maybe superior, since these stereotypes, as I said, can be ridiculous. Sometimes I wonder just how many people in my corner of the world really do picture foreigners with these stereotypes. It also got me wondering how people outside of North America picture North Americans. Over the years, I have learned a little about this. Most people outside of Canada picture the country as a land of ice and snow year round, and where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police still wears red uniforms with big hats. Maybe if Canadian filmmakers made real movies that would attract audiences from all over the world instead of making so-called movies that turn off people just from their description, foreigners would have a different outlook on Canada. When it comes to the United States, however, there are all sorts of false perceptions about the country. I once saw an episode of COPS that took place in Texas, and the police officer who was up front and centered in one of the segments mentioned that his city got a lot of European tourists, and quite often these tourists were shocked to discover that Texan law enforcement officers were not riding horseback on dusty city streets. Such misconceptions about the United States have happened for ages, even before immigrants believed that the streets of America were paved with gold.

I admit that watching a foreign movie that has misconceptions about the United States can be interesting. Sometimes it can be hilarious, like how the Jackie Chan movie Rumble In The Bronx portrayed New York City with golf courses and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Sometimes the perspective can be interesting in other ways. However, such movies can often be hard to find in The Outside ManNorth America. No doubt it's because domestic film distributors in the United States feel that a foreign look at the United States would not sit will with their domestic audience. Domestic audiences don't like to feel criticized, as well as seeing a viewpoint that may be downright wrong. So sometimes foreign filmmakers have to add something extra to their movies in order to get U.S. distribution and audiences. The French filmmakers of The Outside Man made their movie more palatable to a U.S. audience (and got an American distribution deal) by adding American stars (Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, and Angie Dickinson) to its cast. Though none of them play the main character of the movie; the role is played by a French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant (Under Fire). The character he plays in the movie is a hitman from France named Lucien Bellon who comes to Los Angeles for an assignment that will pay off his gambling debts. Shortly after getting to Los Angeles, he learns what his assignment is: Assassinate Victor Kovacs, head of one of the big mafia families in the city. Sounds like a tough assignment, but it turns out to be much easier than you might think. But it's what happens afterwards that proves to be a problem for Lucien. After assassinating Kovacs, Lucien starts to prepare to leave Los Angeles, but discovers that his passport and other important papers have been taken away from his hotel room. Not only that, he soon encounters a fellow by the name of Lenny (Scheider, The Doorway), a hitman hired by the Kovacs family, who tries to kill him. Lucien gets away, but without his passport and other papers he is in quite a pickle, especially since he knows that Lenny is hunting him down. So getting help from a friend of a contact from France (played by Ann-Margret, Interstate 60) who lives in the area, Lucien makes arrangements to get a forged French passport made. But he soon discovers that even if he does get a passport, he might not be able to get away from the people determined to hunt him down.

I've seen my share of movies from America that when they deal with France and/or people from France, they more often than not portray the country and its citizens in a light that could be considered to be negative. And since these American movies are more often than not widely seen in France, it's likely many French citizens resent the negative potrayal. So when I sat down to watch The Outside Man, I was expecting to see a fairly negative portrayal of America and Americans. But actually, although there is some American material in the movie that might be considered to be made to be negative, the movie overall doesn't feel like a heavy critique of American and Americans. For one thing, the portrayal of the lead character - a French citizen - often shows him in a very negative light. He is a killer, for one thing, and his travels around Los Angeles end up getting a number of people killed, either from him or other people connected with him in one way or another. Also, at one point in the movie he takes an innocent housewife (Georgia Engel, Mary Tyler Moore) and her young son (a pre-fame Jackie Earle Haley) hostage at gunpoint for several hours just so that he can have a place to hide from the determined Lenny. Engel's housewife character, by the way, is portrayed to be kind of a scatterbrain, enough that she brings some welcome and genuinely funny comedy relief to the movie. At one point, when she is asked by the police to identify a body (not her first), she blandly says, "That's all right, I'm getting used to it." She may be laughable in her behavior, and other Los Angeles residents turn out to be eccentrics like the hitchhiker Lucien picks up that turns out to be a kind of Jesus freak. But although the showcased Los Angeles citizens have their kooky side, I really didn't get the feeling the filmmakers were making fun of or criticizing Americans. I got the feeling instead that they were showing how humans, regardless of location, can be radically different from each other. The range of different kind of characters in The Outside Man is wide, and it's one way the movie is not your standard hit man movie.

Despite my revelation that there isn't a mean-spirited look at Americans in The Outside Man, there are probably some cynics who, with a deep analysis of the movie, could come up with evidence that there is some material that pictures America in a negative light. They will probably point to the characters making up the Los Angeles mafia and the various violent acts they enact in their city, as well as the fact that a number of the Los Angeles locations the movie shoots on consist of broken-down abandoned buildings or inhabited buildings that are long past their prime. But I didn't see such things as being anti-American. The mafia in this movie is shown to have connections with France, for one thing, showing that their power isn't just confined to the United States. As for the past their prime locations, I think director Jacques Deray was simply showing all sides of Los Angeles in order to give the movie a variety of settings, from the Hilton hotel to the crumbling piers by the Pacific Ocean. By the way, it's not just with the locations that Deray shows a lot of thought behind the camera. For example, take the use of music - or rather, the lack of music. Deray does get composer Michel Legrand (Breezy) to contribute a few passages of funk, but the vast majority of the time Deray has the events of the movies happening with silence in the background. Without a crutch telling the audience how to feel, it forces the audience to pay better attention to what happens. It also makes the events of the movie play out more realistically, not making the movie come across as some kind of fictional fantasy. This aids the movie in several regards, like with the depiction of violent acts. Although there are long passages between the action sequences, when violence does occur it packs quite a punch. These violent sequences feel quite nasty, because we really get the feeling that real flesh and blood characters are being killed right before our eyes.

Further watching of The Outside Man reveals even more talent by director Deray. He also shows some talent when it comes to directing the various actors that make appearances in the movie. For example, he knows that in a sleazy strip joint, it's not enough to have one topless woman dancing in the background. Instead, he has not one but two totally naked women dancing in the background. Seriously, though, the actors who actually have lines of dialogue in the movie do make a good impression. Roy Scheider does well as the hitman hunting down Lucien. He doesn't overplay things, but stays cool and collected even when things aren't going his way. You really get the sense his character is a true professional, and you pay attention when he's onscreen. Ann-Margret creates some genuine tension when she's in a scene with the character of Lucien, showing she does not quite know how to deal with such a dangerous character. (As a result, her character does not fall in love with Lucien, which is a pleasant surprise.) As for Jean-Louis Trintignant, I had mixed feeling about him. When he is silent, he neverless comes across as a determined and often brutal figure that you closely watch to try and find some humanity in him. However, when his character does speak, the spell is sometimes broken since Trintignant is obviously having problems with the English language, sometimes so much that it's kind of hard to make out what he is saying. Wisely, director Deray keeps him silent (or speaking French) for most of the movie. Anyway, the uneven performance by Trintignant didn't really spoil my enjoyment with The Outside Man. Its various quirks make it quite different than the various American action movies made in the early 1970s, so if you are into action movies from this particular period, you'll find it a refreshing change of pace.

(Posted February 19, 2015)

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See also: Don't Die Too Hard!, Tell No One, Up To His Ears

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