Friday, November 13, 2009

In Boston, Wrongdoing Done Right

After suffering through The Boondock Saints II, I started thinking about better Boston-themed crime movies. Most modern movie viewers would cite The Departed as the great Boston crime movie, except that a) it's not that great and b) it's a remake of a Hong Kong film. If only Bostonians had better memories, they would say that 1973's The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best of all the films of life in the Hub's underworld. Indeed, it may well be the best of all Boston movies. Alas, it's very little known. Though Quentin Tarantino references it in Jackie Brown and Criterion recently put the film out on DVD, The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains sorely under-appreciated.

Director Peter Yates elected to shoot Eddie Coyle entirely on location, even though very few scenes feature famous Boston landmarks – we see some the Government Center T stop and the old Garden, but there aren't any car chases through the North End or shootouts in Kenmore Square. Unlike so many "location" films, Eddie Coyle doesn't treat the audience like tourists. The characters are all at home in Boston; we see their world as they see it – humdrum and seedy and boozy – instead of witnessing it from a tour bus.

The cinematography in The Friends of Eddie Coyle is rarely as fancy as in other seventies crime films, but this unobtrusiveness fits. The criminals in this story are not glamorous or even particularly threatening; the title character lives in Quincy and his family is almost on welfare. Don Corleone's office in The Godfather seems a temple or sanctum; the criminal decisions made there seem solemn and momentous. In Eddie Coyle, the lawbreakers spend most of their time in uncrowded bars and cheap restaurants that are shot to look like uncrowded bars and cheap restaurants. Though it's a story of treachery, violence, and betrayal, The Friends of Eddie Coyle lacks the style generally associated with noir. Everything's seedy, but nothing's sexy.

At times, The Friends of Eddie Coyle seems almost like a play. Though the film is compellingly shot, most of it consists of long conversations between various criminals, cops, and hangers-on. Thankfully, the script is fantastic – believable, funny, and intelligent. While there are several policemen in the film, in some ways the viewer has to play detective, figuring out the complex interrelationships and machinations of several unscrupulous characters. The plot isn't terribly complicated or twisty, but never does anyone lay it all out straight for the audience's consideration. It's just as well, as there's only – as far as I can tell – one character who could tell the whole story, and he has very good reasons to stay quiet.

Robert Mitchum plays the film's title character, a worn-out Irish criminal awaiting sentencing for a crime he committed in New Hampshire. Peter Boyle plays his friend and bartender Dillon, Steven Keats plays a gunrunner, and Richard Jordan plays a Treasury detective. Plus there are some student radicals who want machine guns, a group of bank robbers, and – mostly unseen – the Mafia. Eddie Coyle wants to avoid jail time; to do so, he's willing to betray friends and talk to cops, all the while selling guns to some other acquaintances. Things get messy, though the movie's body count is actually quite low.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a very good cast, if not a famous one. There are only two "stars" in the movie, and Peter Boyle's role is comparatively small. Mitchum's Coyle is far more likable than a gun dealer and felon should be; he's a working-class stiff with an unconventional job. Even at his worst, there's something in his tired expression that makes you root for Coyle. I wish that Peter Boyle's seemingly-ineffectual Dillon got more screen time; he's quite compelling, especially after some late-movie revelations. He's awkward and balding and cringing, but he's dangerous for all of that. Like most of the film's characters, he's a hypocrite.

I'd praise the script for Eddie Coyle, but screenwriter Paul Monash didn't have all that much to do, as most of the dialogue is lifted from George V. Higgins' very novel. Yes, fans, this is another tandem book/movie review. Elmore Leonard – considered one of the world's best crime writers – has referred to The Friends of Eddie Coyle as "the greatest crime novel ever written." Norman Mailer provided a memorable blurb to Higgins, then a US Attorney in Boston: "What I can't get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz." The novel's plot is slightly more convoluted than the film's; sorting out the plot requires just a little more dedication. If I don't praise it quite so highly as Leonard does, I think it's one of the ten best crime novels that I've ever read. I should, perhaps, admit that I'm a trifle biased towards Higgins, as we share an alma mater.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled movie review.

As much as I enjoyed The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there are a few problems. The Criterion DVD doesn't offer any deleted scenes, though it does provide some stills from them. Presumably the full scenes have vanished. In any case, I get the impression that a slightly longer movie would have been a slightly better one. One major character vanishes after his arrest near the end of the film; I'm not sure that he's ever mentioned again, though he featured in some missing scenes. One later scene originally featured a shootout; I was surprised that such an action-light movie would cut it, though I think Yates made the right choice. He also cut a fairly graphic sex scene, thus showing his commitment to people over sex and spectacle.

Though later films borrow some from Eddie Coyle – Dillon's pigeon monologue wouldn't be out of place in Pulp Fiction – I've never seen anything quite like it. It has a profound sense of place, it avoids most crime movie cliches, it's funny, and it's well-acted. You should watch it.

1 comment:

Timothy Dahl said...

Hey man. I read the first seven words and stopped. We get it you're an educated guy, but you come off like an ass when you piss on something in the first line.