Director: Graham Moore (UK. USA). Year of Release: 2022
Chicago. 1956. Leonard Burling is a cutter, who works in a shop that is obviously a front for the mob. Every so often, a couple of big blokes in suits and trilbies pass by and take away the mail. They are particularly interested in the thick envelopes with a stamp on them containing the logo of The Outfit. Leonard speaks in a London accent, and the big blokes in trilbies call him “English“.
The film opens with Leonard explaining in voiceover the 288 steps required to make a suit. The first step takes 10 minutes and you fear that he is going to go on and recount the other 287. Leonard is a meticulous taciturn man who takes a close interest in his trade, but not obviously in much else. He insists on being called a cutter, as a tailor to him is little more than a tradesman – someone who just sews on buttons. Leonard, on the other hand, served a real apprenticeship on Savile Row.
As the film progresses, Leonard changes the reason he gives for moving to the States. Maybe it was the war, maybe he was escaping tragic personal circumstances. But the reason that he gives most often is Blue Jeans. Leonard creates bespoke tailory for a discerning public. After US soldiers brought jeans to Britain during the war, and people kept on wearing them under bleak post-war austerity, he was suddenly a man out of time and place.
The secretary Mable (sic) is a local girl who wants to travel to anywhere that isn’t Chicago. She collects snow globes of European landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben and is just looking for the chance to get out. Leonard takes a paternal interest in Mable, and we later hear that he lost his own daughter in tragic circumstances. He seems to have transferred his relatively eventless life into a hope that Mable will make something of herself.
The two hoods who regularly pass through the shop are Richie Boyle and Francis. Richie is nominally in charge as he is the boss’s son and Francis isn’t even Irish. Mable hangs around him as he’s a guy “who’s going places”. But it’s Francis who is the assertive one who takes control. One day, Richie and Francis enter the shop fleeing a street battle. Richie has been shot and Francis forces Leonard to sew up the wound.
What follows is a kind of noir film, with each cross swiftly followed by a double cross. When Richie apparently disappears, in come the big boys, and Richie’s father starts to throw his weight around. There’s some Maguffin about an FBI “cassette tape” which names a rat. Everyone wants to get their hands on the tape – even the FBI and the rival La Fontaine gang, None of it makes too much sense, but you get swept along enough in the action not to really mind about that.
There are comparisons to be made with The Usual Suspects – in particular in the unreliable narrator who seems too insignificant to be part of the central plot, but turns out to be the one who is determining the action. I won’t go into specifics so as to avoid plot spoilers, but let’s just say that Leonard has hidden talents.
The Outfit could have been a play, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. All the action takes place in the same building on the same night, which contributes to a certain artistic unity. Although it is set in Chicago it features leading British stage actors Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale. This is all very fitting as the central theme of the film is deception and challenging the audience to work out just who is fooling whom (clue: it’s all of them).
Somehow The Outfit feels good but not great. I can’t find any real reason to fault it, but at the same time it isn’t spectacular. On the one hand, this is self-evident – there are no big car crashes, and although there is a lot of blood, this is handed tastefully. All these things make it a better film. But the concentration on character instead of plot also makes the film slow at times, and although it always holds our attention, there are times when you just want them to get on with it.
Maybe this is just my problem, or the problem of social media culture which has us demanding instant gratification. There is enough in The Outfit to make everything worth the wait. And yet, while I feel that this is a film with aspirations towards being a classic, it just doesn’t quite make it. This is certainly a film you should go and watch, but I’m not sure how much it would hold up to repeated viewing. Maybe I need to watch it again to make sure.