Mel Gibson as Porter, cynical but straightforward career criminal
Chicago, Spring 1974…sort of
Release Date: February 5, 1999
Director: Brian Helgeland
Costume Designer: Ha Nguyen
Payback is one of those movies that I always enjoy more than I expect to. Short, sweet, and self-aware, it lives in the same universe as Archer where decades are blended to create one ambiguous super-era with cars, clothing, technology, and pop culture spanning the 1970s through the 1990s though clearly meant to be a throwback to the Charley Varrick era of the early 1970s when pulp crime dominated screens.
The story itself is an old and well-adapted one, dating back to Donald E. Westlake’s 1962 novel The Hunter about a mob heistman named Parker who lives by his code and seeks revenge against those who wronged him. The novel was first adapted as the excellent and badass 1967 thriller Point Blank with Lee Marvin as the protagonist, now renamed Walker. More than thirty years later, director Brian Helgeland teamed up with action star (not yet known as a rambling racist) Mel Gibson to create Payback, updating the story without losing the mise-en-scène of a gritty ’70s crime film.
Helgeland, hot off of his Oscar win for helming L.A. Confidential, did a fine job with the film but it left both the studio and Gibson unsatisfied. Despite the film’s marketing telling us to “root for the bad guy”, Gibson decided he didn’t want his protagonist to be too much of a bad guy. Helgeland fought back and, despite his Academy Award, was replaced by production designer John Myhre. Scenes were re-shot, the ending was dramatically changed to be happier and less ambiguous, and a corny, trope-laden voiceover was added throughout. Audiences responded more positively to the theatrical version, but true fans of crime films knew something was missing…
In 2006, Helgeland released his original director’s cut, widely regarded as vastly superior to the theatrical Payback. Cutting out the gratuity in the explosions and narration, this director’s cut is a much clearer nod to the tougher, sordid films of the ’70s like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Chinatown, and The French Connection with an uncompromising anti-hero in a world of colorful sociopaths.
What’d He Wear?
Porter quickly “comes back from the dead” and gets his hands on some spare cash. His first trip is to Brooks Brothers, where he is fitted for a dark gray suit constructed of wool and possibly a wool-silk blend. Here, the ambiguous setting is lessened as the generous-fitting suit is clearly a product of 1999 rather than 1979 (or any other year from the ’70s, for that matter!)
The suit jacket is single-breasted with standard notch lapels. It has padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads and a ventless rear. The jacket has a 2-button front, but Porter always wears it open. It has a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets.
Due to the jacket’s large fit, the sleeves – with their 4-button cuffs – are a bit too long for Gibson and often totally conceal his shirt cuffs and even creep up past his wrists onto his hands.
We see much less of Porter’s trousers, but they are lower rise with belt loops – worn with a black leather belt – and single reverse pleats. The bottoms are plain-hemmed with a full break.
Porter’s shirt has alternating stripes of light gray and dark blue that bring out the hint of blue in the suit color.
The collar has a moderate spread, and the rounded barrel cuffs close with a button. All buttons, both on the French (placket-less) front and the cuffs, are black plastic. The shirt also has a breast pocket over the left chest.
Porter wears a very dark tie in charcoal blue silk with a very subtle left-down-to-right stripe and light gray dot motif. From a distance, and in dark lighting, it appears to be solid charcoal but close-ups reveal the true color and complexity.
Porter’s plain-toe shoes are black leather to match his belt with black socks. Typically, socks should match the trouser rather than the shoe, but the trouser break is so long on his suit that it’s not as important here. Plus, Porter is dressing to (literally) kill, not to impress.
He wears an unidentified stainless wristwatch with a white dial and black leather strap. Despite his wife’s betrayal, he still wears a plain gold wedding band on his left ring finger.
Porter spends the night on his wife’s couch wearing only his white sleeveless ribbed undershirt and his boxer shorts. The boxers are light gray with a subtle tonal stripe. They also have an elastic waistband and side vents.
Go Big or Go Home
Porter gives us all a few streetwise lessons on how to get your way back to the top over the span of one day as he transforms himself from a dirty and forgotten bullet-ridden nobody to a well-fed and well-armed man in a Brooks Brothers suit.
First, you’ll need some quick cash. Porter swipes his from the hat of a rude homeless man shouting obscenities on the street. You might get some angry looks from people if you steal from the homeless, but one shouting obscenities doesn’t quite get the spirit of the whole thing.
Next, you’ll need some ID. Walking down the street, Porter finds a guy who looks reasonably similar to him. After a clumsy stumble and apology, Porter walks away with the guy’s wallet. Pickpocketing takes more finesse than just grabbing cash from a hat, so Porter’s years of criminal experience come in handy.
After using the cash to spruce himself up, ostensibly buying soap, a tie, and a comb, Porter strolls into a bank and uses the swiped ID to open up a credit card. Time is crucial for Porter here; he needs to obtain his account before the man alerts anyone to his stolen identification.
Porter then defines his priorities. He has a quick window of time to use the credit card, and he needs new clothing, a firearm, and food… in that order. He heads to Brooks Brothers and is fitted for the suit described above, with plenty of room for him to move. We next find Porter at a jewelry store, buying several pieces that we know he’ll never wear.
Instead, he finds a pleased buyer for the jewelry at a local pawn shop. Flushed with cash from the quick transaction, he eyes his tool of justice – a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson – and heads out on his way.
One last stop finds Porter in an upscale restaurant, fortifying himself with steak and coffee. Now properly fueled, he lights a few cigarettes, leaves the restaurant without paying (the “dine and dash” is one of the oldest tricks in the book), and stakes out his ex-wife’s pad.
While some people unfamiliar with the film might read that last sentence and worry about a Scorsese-in-Taxi Driver-type scenario, Porter’s intentions are far less misogynist. All he wants is his money back, and her place is the best first lead he has… given that she shot him and left him for dead on the orders of his duplicitous ex-criminal partner.
How to Get the Look
Although Porter is a very ’70s anti-hero, he dresses very contemporary for 1999 as he suits up for his path for vengeance.
- Dark gray wool blend Brooks Brothers suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted ventless jacket with notch lapels, 2-button front, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, and 4-button cuffs
- Single reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Gray-and-blue striped dress shirt with spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Charcoal blue silk necktie with subtle stripe and dot motif
- Black leather belt with a silver clasp
- Black leather plain-toe shoes
- Black socks
- White sleeveless ribbed undershirt
- Light gray tonal-striped boxer shorts
- Stainless wristwatch with white dial on black leather strap, worn on right wrist
- Gold wedding band, worn on left ring finger
After pawning some honestly-purchased jewelry (albeit with ill-gotten funds), Porter checks out the pawn shop’s selection of firearms. Like his predecessor Walker in Point Blank, he chooses the imposing Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, part of Smith & Wesson’s imposing N-frame series of revolvers and chambered for the legendary .44 Magnum cartridge.
Made famous by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, the Model 29 was developed in the 1950s and was – as Eastwood so famously said – the “most powerful [production] handgun in the world”… at least for a while. Now superseded by larger rounds like the .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, and .500 S&W Magnum, the .44 Magnum remains popular both for its heritage and its stopping power.
At the time of its use in Point Blank in 1967, the Model 29 was mostly known and used only by firearms aficionados and some gung-ho LEOs. Its use in the gritty Lee Marvin crime film did little to bolster its popularity among the masses, as unfortunately few flocked to see it. Dirty Harry, however, jumpstarted the revolver’s popularity and, soon, Smith & Wesson could barely keep them in stock.
Although some later continuity errors in Payback show Porter using the similarly-framed (but tapered barreled) S&W Model 28 in .357 Magnum, the Model 29 returned as his weapon of choice. The particular model used in the film, serial #AED9164, had a 4″ barrel and custom walnut grips by Peter Orr. It was rented for use in the film from Stembridge Gun Rentals, which has been providing movie-ready firearms to Hollywood since 1920.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie… and make sure it’s the director’s cut.
I’m gonna get my money back.