Review of Man Outside (1986)
by Donald Joseph
In 1986 The Band appeared in a low-budget thriller called The Man Outside alongside Robert Logan, Kathleen Quinlain, and Bradford Dillman. Shot down in Arkansas, the film featured Levon in a leading role as a sheriff, Rick as the father of a kidnapped boy, and Garth as "a recluse". Richard Manuel was merely one of the vigilantes out to find the kidnapper. According to Barney Hoskyns' book Across the Great Divide, the film is a "destined-for-video-only piece of trash". The Man Outside was filmed in Fayetteville, AR, USA, which is where Ronnie Hawkins got his start in the music business. The film has also been released under the name Hidden Fear, and there is an entry in the Internet Movie Database for it.
Because Man Outside is a hard-to-find film which includes dramatic acting by Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, it seems to draw a lot of interest from Band freaks. This is a review of the film from a Band perspective.
As I understand it, Man Outside was shot after Levon did Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff, when he was taking low-budget projects like Staying Together and the Wilfred Brimley train picture. The Man Outside filming was done in rural Arkansas. Levon somehow got the opportunity to bring aboard the other guys in the Band; apparently the casting person just said "what the hell."
The film opens with a sociology student spying on Logan for a project on why hermits drop out of society. The student's teacher, played by actress Kathleen Quinlan, takes a keen interest in the Logan project and quickly forms a personal attatchment to the guy.
Meanwhile, a child molester/killer -- dominated by a Norman-Bate's-mom- type mother -- is on the loose in a nearby town. The molester kidnaps a 10-year-old boy and locks him in his basement to play toys with him. Due to an unlucky circumstance or perhaps due to the molester's frame-up, the local lawman, Sherriff Leland Laughlin (Levon Helm) comes to believe Logan is behind the child's abduction. The kid's dad, Jim Riggs (Rick Danko) leads a posse of locals -- including Vigilante #1 (Richard Manuel) -- to capture and torture Logan, thinking he is behind the abduction and wanting to beat out of him information on where the kid is. Leland/Levon intervenes, jails Logan, and the judicial process kicks in.
But Quinlan, believing in Logan's innocence, helps him escape from prison. On the lam, Logan and Quinlan hide out with an even-more-remote hermit, Cheney (Garth Hudson) and his wife.
Putting clues together, Logan is able to figure out who the child molester is. So Logan leaves his hideout to clear his name and, if possible, save the kid.
Logan goes to town and Quinlan soon follows in Cheney/Garth's dilapidated pickup (in the back of which is a guitar case). Laughlin/Levon quickly sees them, but rather than capture the fugitives he trails behind to watch the situation play itself out.
The molester comes home, knocks out Logan (who is sniffing around the house but as yet has not found the kid), and takes the kid to Logan's hermit- house to kill him there, which would frame Logan.
Quinlan revives Logan and hightails it with him in the Garthmobile to the site of the killing (Logan having figured out where the molester was headed). The molester threatens to take off the kid's head with a shovel but, just as Laughlin/Levon arrives to watch, Logan overpowers the molester, who breaks down and sobs for his mama not to spank him.
Logan, his name cleared (Sherriff Levon apparently having forgotten to press charges for the felony prison break) catches the next bus to go see his own estranged kid. As he leaves he entrusts Quinlan with his beloved dog, promising to return for both of them. Roll credits.
CommentaryFrom the perspective of a film viewer who is not into The Band, the film is unwatchably bad. For one thing, the low-budget tone makes the movie look cheesey. The first 2/3, in particular, are slow to the point of being insufferable: We watch Logan live as a hermit, and we see Quinlan take an interest in him; meanwhile we see the child molester abduct the kid -- but while these two sub-plots are still unconnected we do not care about either. The actor who plays the child molester is such a smarmy ham that it's hard not to laugh every time he's on screen.
The film is chock-full of cliches: The child molester with Norman Bates's mom for a mother; the idealistic research project which is obviously going to turn into a love interest; the flashback and dreams which ultimately fill us in on Logan's past. There is even a shot of a middle-class Arkansas living room with a copy of Southern Living magazine on the coffee table.
For a Band fan, the juciest cliches are the lines the scriptwriter gives Levon, the seen-it-all Southern sherriff. My favorites (these are actual quotes from the same mouth that sings "Cripple Creek" -- read these in Levon's drawl):
Of the Band, Levon's part is obviously the biggest; he gets fourth billing in the credits and his name makes the front of the video box, behind the first three billed. (Levon and Ricky are both pictured on the front of the box.) After Levon, Ricky has the second biggest role, as the kidnapped boy's dad. However, Ricky has rather few lines; he just stands around and looks worried and mad. When the kid makes it home at the end, Rick's line is no Shakespeare: "Are you all right, boy?"
However, there are some good shots of Levon and Rick together, and seeing Levon cock a shotgun at Ricky is, needless to say, priceless. (To juice up his acting Levon probably pretended it was Robbie.)
The next biggest Band role is Garth's cameo as the hermit. He says the line "Ya stay!" twice (as in "you are welcome to stay at my place and hide out while you're on the lam"). Then Garth launches into a few sentences about Viet Nam -- he's obviously a disturbed vet -- after which his on-screen wife exclaims: "That's the most I heard outta him in 7 years!"
Inexplicably, the Garth character picks up an accordian and plays a mournful solo; it seems to be the same pretty accordian used in The Last Waltz. It's exciting to hear him play, but the solo is just a short riff, a far cry from "Feed the Birds," "French Girls," or "Genetic Method."
Later we see in Garth's delapadated truck a guitar case; the inference is Garth the hermit also plays guitar. That would need Laurence Olivier-level skills or method acting -- Garth on a string instrument!
Although Garth's cameo is modest, he's a regular Robert DeNiro next to Richard Manuel, who plays an unnamed friend to Ricky who helps capture and torture Logan. Blink and you'll miss Richard. If he has any lines they're only mumbled exclamations during the capture and beating [actually, Richard says to Logan "Somebody wants to see you...he wanted me to give you THIS!" and then punches Logan in the stomach].
In the closing credits, Levon is billed at the fourth slot, Ricky at #7, Garth at #14, and Richard at #27. I recognized no other Band-affiliated names in the credits.
The music is credited to John McEuen, who I believe was with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; the music is indeed better than average, but if there were a soundtrack album I wouldn't buy it. One song is sung by Vince Gill, who I believe is a big country star today but was a no-name in '86.
You get the idea: The Band screen time (other than Levon) is so short, and the movie is so bad, that it is not worth killing yourself to get your hands on this film. If you see it, you have my permission to fast-forward through all the junk. Just watch Levon spout cliches and threaten Rick with a gun, see Richard play tough-guy for a second, and check out 'Nam-vet Garth's quickie squeeze-box solo.