Friday, August 7, 2020

Classic Movie Double Bill: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) & Killing Them Softly (2012)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) 
Directed by: Peter Yates.
Written by: Paul Monash based on the novel by George V. Higgins.
Starring: Robert Mitchum (Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle), Peter Boyle (Dillon), Richard Jordan (Dave Foley), Steven Keats (Jackie Brown), Alex Rocco (Jimmy Scalise), Joe Santos (Artie Van), Mitchell Ryan (Waters), Peter MacLean (Mr. Partridge), Kevin O'Morrison (Bank manager #2), Marvin Lichterman (Vernon), Carolyn Pickman (Nancy), James Tolkan (The Man's contact man), Margaret Ladd (Andrea), Matthew Cowles (Pete), Helena Carroll (Sheila Coyle), Jack Kehoe (The Beard)
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik.
Written by: Andrew Dominik based on the novel by George V. Higgins.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Jackie), Scoot McNairy (Frankie), Ben Mendelsohn (Russell), James Gandolfini (Mickey), Richard Jenkins (Driver), Vincent Curatola (Johnny Amato), Ray Liotta (Markie Trattman), Trevor Long (Steve Caprio), Max Casella (Barry Caprio), Sam Shepard (Dillon), Slaine (Kenny Gill).

I was going to say it was inexplicable that only two movies have ever been based on the novels by George V. Higgins – until I realized that perhaps the best way to describe Higgins is Elmore Leonard with all the fun drained out – and then it becomes easier to see why Hollywood hasn’t jumped on the novels. The rogues’ gallery of character in Leonard novels can betray you, kill you even – but the stories are smart, funny, and sexy – and full of a certain energy. Hollywood hasn’t always gotten Leonard right – but when they do, like in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or Soderberg’s Out of Sight, they produce masterworks. But Higgins characters are different – beaten down by the criminal life, wounded – they are pretty much the walking dead when the stories start – so it’s almost a relief when they meet their inevitable fate. Higgins may have only inspired two movies – but both are brilliant.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) truly does belong on any list of the best films of the 1970s – and probably only doesn’t because director Peter Yates doesn’t get mentioned alongside the like of Altman, Scorsese, or Coppola. Yates was more a journeyman director – yet a filmmaker adept of changing his style to suit the material – meaning he could make this or Bullitt (1968) or Breaking Away (1979) – and find the right note for the film. Hell, who else can say they directed Krull and The Dresser in the same year?

His approach to The Friends of Eddie Coyle most resembles Altman – with it’s large, sprawling cast of characters, some overlapping dialogue, etc. The biggest asset he has is in casting Robert Mitchum in the title role – giving what may just be Mitchum’s best performance ever. Mitchum wasn’t quite 60 yet when he made this film – but he feels older. Eddie Coyle is a career, low-level criminal, looking at yet another prison term – and the weight of it all seems to make him walk a little slower, slumped shoulders. Mitchum, who was never in a hurry to deliver his dialogue, takes even more time than normal here. He is caught – and knows he is caught – and knows what he has to do in order to get away. It will involve becoming a rat. Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) is a cop who has basically told Eddie that he can make a call to the D.A. over in New Hampshire – get that little charge dismissed. But he needs something. Eddie, who has been dealing guns he gets from an even lower level criminal – Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) – thinks that maybe he can just give the kid up. But he’s also been selling those guns to an old friend – who along with some buddies have been committing some brazen, high profile bank robberies.

The title to the film is meant ironically of course – none of these people are really Eddie’s friends. Neither is Dillon (Peter Boyle) – a “bartender” who seems to know everything going on in the criminal underworld in Boston – and uses it to his advantage – either with the cops, or other criminals, whatever benefits him the most. Much is made of criminal code – but perhaps no film has more accurately dramatized the saying “there is no honor among thieves” – everyone in the film is out for themselves – the cops, the criminals – everyone. And will only do something if forced.

Eddie is, of course, a veteran in this world – a couple decades older even than Dillon, even if Boyle never seemed to age from the time, he was Joe (1970) to Everyone Loves Raymond (1995-2005). Eddie isn’t a good guy per se – he’s bad in many ways. But he’s a tragic figure – and a sympathetic one. I defy you not to feel for him as gets drunker and drunker at the Bruins game, shouting “Number four, Bobby Orr” – when we know his time is up (and maybe he does too). Mitchum, always one of the best actors in the world, in part because he didn’t seem to give a shit, here digs deeper and delivers a masterclass in screen acting. It’s one of the best performance you will ever see – and the film is a straight-up masterpiece.

It took nearly 40 years for someone else to adapt Higgins – and that was in 2012’s Killing Them Softly, based on Higgins’ Coogan’s Trade. It was Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to his 2007 masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (we’re still waiting for his follow-up to this one). I admit, I didn’t much like the film when I first saw it – other than the killer final scene. I felt Dominik laid on too many showy directors tricks, that some of the dialogue seemed stilted – like a poor man’s version of Leonard or Tarantino. Watching it again, I can only say I was wrong – perhaps the director’s tricks (particularly early) aren’t as distracting on my TV screen as they were in the theater, I’m not sure – but the dialogue is terrific. It isn’t a poor man’s Leonard or Tarantino – because it isn’t trying to be either. Much like the dialogue in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, it is weighted down – the lives of these people has beaten them down, ground them down. Most of them are as much dead men walking as Eddie Coyle.

It all starts with the robbery of a mob-controlled card game. Johnny (Vincent Curatola) brings up the idea to Frankie (Scoot McNairy), who brings in Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to pull it off. Normally, robbing a mob backed card game would be suicide – but Johnny knows this particular card game was knocked over a few years ago – and the man behind it was Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) – who still runs the game, even if it’s an open secret he did it himself. They looked the other way once – but he figures they won’t do so again. They’ll just kill Markie and move on. That is essentially the first act of the film – the first 30 minutes of a 97-minute movie. It isn’t until after that the film’s star – Jackie (Brad Pitt) even shows up. The mob wanted Dillon (Sam Shepherd) – but Dillon isn’t available (is it the same Dillon as Peter Boyle played in Eddie Coyle – could be). Jackie doesn’t buy that Markie would be so stupid to knock over the same game again – and it really doesn’t take much to figure out what really happened. He meets with the go-between with the mob (Richard Jenkins) – and wants to bring in a pro from New York – Mickey (James Gandolfini). Mickey isn’t what he used to be though.

These characters will remind you of those in The Friends of Eddie Coyle – a rogue’s gallery of beaten down, hard scrabble, violent but also kind of pathetic men. Jackie is the only one who seems most in control – because he’s the only one not living with any delusions of what the point of this all is. Dominik makes the interesting choice to set the film in 2008 – and we hear Obama promising hope and change throughout the film in the background. It was made in another election year – 2012 – when Obama is back up for reelection, where the country has lived through the worst of the massive economic downturn brought on by corporate greed. Jackie knows what this all means – “In America, you’re on your own” – a blistering tagline that lays in stark contrast to Obama’s.

Perhaps therein lies the secret as to why Hollywood hasn’t adapted more Higgins novels. They aren’t fun – they don’t show us honor among thieves, or be about the transgressions of those who live outside the law. There is something universal in his sad sack characters – the walking dead waiting to be put out of their misery.

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