sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2018-01-06 12:55 am
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I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right

I can see a church from my office window. It's a chunky, pinkish concrete building, with a gated side lot and big first-floor windows squared full of glass bricks; it used to be a garage. Specifically, it used to be Marshall Motors, the garage that was the headquarters of the Winter Hill Gang in the 1960's and '70's, the heyday of their prominence in Boston organized crime. It doesn't look dramatic. It's a residential street. Even in the days of sodium vapor rather than LEDs, it would have been hard to make the neighborhood look mysterious—it's Somerville classic, triple-deckers and bathtub Marys, Philadelphia-style two-families and the trees trimmed like slingshots for the telephone lines to string through. Chain-link yards. One-way signs everywhere. Forty-five years ago, I imagine it would only have been more blue-collar, less riddled with flipped condos and the metastasizing rents of the long-prophesied Green Line Extension. I imagine the street parking situation sucked then, too.

That's the Boston in which The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) takes place, a laconic, chilly, lived-in crime picture directed by Peter Yates with none of the grungy jazz of Bullitt (1968), which is a compliment. I don't even want to call it gritty because that makes it sound too forceful, too fancy. There is no opera in Eddie Coyle, soap or otherwise; there is no grandeur in the holdups or deals or dime-drops or arrests or any of the other provisional, transactional encounters in the food chain of low-level crime that Paul Monash's screenplay, working faithfully from the 1972 novel by then-federal prosecutor George V. Higgins, documents as unglamorously as it does early-seventies Boston in the dead zone of late fall. Everyone works an angle. No one gives anything for free. No one can afford to—forget codes of honor, how about mortgages and bills? Business on the whole is amicable, conducted more often over coffee or beers than the barrel of a gun, but any viewer fooled into thinking that a smile in this milieu means anything more lasting than professional courtesy will have learned better, and colder, by the time the camera comes around to the parking lot in Dorchester where the all-night neon of a bowling alley blinks indifferently off the windows of an abandoned car. There are two fatal shots fired in this movie. The first might take you by surprise, but the second can be seen coming for miles, which provides no comfort whatsoever when it arrives. It's business as usual. It's all business as usual, the masked bank robberies backed by suburban home invasions, the hippie couple negotiating for machine guns out of the back of their Bondo-bandaged van, the treasury agent playing his informants against one another, littler fish for bigger. Guns change hands like groceries. Everybody knows a guy. It sounds like Frank Miller hyper-noir laid out like that, but it's a real city, a city I would be born into less than a decade after the film and so much of it would still look the same, right down to the lollipops and the FDIC placards in the half-glassed tellers' windows of small local banks. I recognize that Brutalist concrete, that colorless dry-striking light, the crunchy lawns and stripped trees of this particular breath-fogging season; any half-decent set dresser can fake license plates, but not the oil stains of asphalt or the weathering of brick. The harbor moving mirror-blue under the leaching pale sky of autumn. The Charles—still poisoned in those years, the three-headed-fish river my father wouldn't teach me to sail on even in the '80's—grey as overcast, traffic both ways over the Harvard Bridge. Hats off to the late, iconic ziggurat of Government Center in all its trapezoidal brick non-glory. In a city that real, you believe all these dingy wheels and deals going down as often as not in plain sight. "Because there's fifteen thousand people here looking at the Bruins," a hitman-cum-barman explains his choice of misdirection to a college-age accomplice, "and they don't give a fuck about us."

And nobody gives a fuck about Eddie Coyle, almost not even the camera. He gets everywhere and belongs nowhere; he's always got a deal on, but it's never a big one; he's done time and he can't take any more of it, especially looking at his wife and kids going on welfare while he's inside. He's nearly fifty-one years old, with a weary, quizzical face and "an extra set of knuckles" he picked up for a long-ago infraction of the rule about selling stuff that can be traced (don't), and he is played by Robert Mitchum in an act of miraculous self-defeat, shrugged into rumpled suit jackets, late-night cafeterias and shadowy afternoon bars, the squirrelly, bullshit-confident doldrums between desperation and resignation; what's behind those famously heavy-lidded eyes this time is cold sweat, not cool. He's not incompetent, Eddie Fingers, but he's not important. No one owes him. All he's got to show for a life in the shallows of organized crime is his caution and his integrity—"I got certain responsibilities"—and facing three to five in New Hampshire for transportation of stolen goods, he's seriously considering trading both in. The events which influence and fall out from his decision form the plot of the movie, but they aren't the point of it, except insofar as they demonstrate as elegantly an equation the real engines of this world, which are nothing like morals. Of course crime doesn't pay, but you start to wonder, for Eddie Coyle, if anything ever would. Almost certainly not going straight. It's not played quite as far as comedy, but the film makes its viewers dryly aware that the only difference between these quotidian crooks and a regular working stiff is the odds of getting whacked or jailed as opposed to fired or retired—when Eddie gripes about "watching the other people go off to Florida while I'm sweating out how I'm going to pay the plumber," he might as well have a legit job. Later on in the widening spirals of Eddie's "friends," we'll meet a bank robber shacked up in a trailer with the slim stewardess girlfriend he boasts "don't wear no pants," but Eddie lives in a cluttered duplex in Quincy and waves his kids off to school while taking out the trash; his wife is Irish and practical, as middle-aged as he is, and when they make out instead of finishing the dishes it's not trophy-like at all. Nothing in the script, the direction, or the performance romanticizes the man, but they don't pathologize him, either. He's as quietly, desperately real as his city and cut just as little slack. The tragedy of Eddie Coyle isn't the choice he makes in his hail-Mary bid for survival, whatever its generally assessed moral value. It's that he doesn't make it fast enough to do him any damn good.

I want to mention the rest of the cast, because they are universally excellent in the way that looks like nothing but showing up; nobody steals scenes and everybody is exactly who they need to be. Richard Jordan's cagey, casual Foley looks like a sharper class of crook with his pretty cheekbones and his leather trenchcoat, but he has a badge and we never even need to be shown it—watching Eddie bat this way and that for the hint of a deal, we can see every one of the angles from which it catches the light. Peter Boyle's Dillon spins arias of genial, meaningless small talk, the kind of easy-listening fixture who always seems to have a bar towel in his hand even when crossing the concrete plains of City Hall Plaza; the one time we hear him speaking directly and concisely, he is negotiating the terms of a hit. Steven Keats as gap-toothed gunrunner Jackie Brown is callow, paranoid, and subtler than he looks; he gets off one of the film's iconic lines while holding an amateur-hour supplier at Colt-point—"This life's hard, man, but it's harder if you're stupid!"—but throws away an even better one when asked if he's still writing: "Nah, that was before I heard about making money." Helene Carroll has two scenes as Sheila Coyle, neither longer than two minutes, and she's as secure in the landscape as Boston Garden. Jack Kehoe as an army-jacketed connection with a habit, Joe Santos as a cocky, breezy robber, Margaret Ladd and Matthew Cowles as a couple of Weather-wannabes, the film daisy-chains them without feeling like it's putting together a succession of cameos so much as the textures of an ecosystem. No one's a kingpin, no one's a crusader. Even the law is on the clock, with our one glimpse of Foley among the filing cabinets given no more narrative emphasis than any of the criminal scenes. A lot happens in this movie. It's intensely alive. But it's alive because of these people, because of what they say, and especially because of how they say it, in the sharp, specific, accumulatingly revealing signal-to-shit-ton-of-noise dialogue straight from the novel, I am pleased to say with all Boston accents present and correct. When Mitchum repeats "Hurts like a bastard," all the vowels are in the right places and so are the non-r's. All the rhythms and repetitions and variations are right. It's a pleasure on the ear.

(I am not enamored of the score by Dave Grusin. It is funky. This is a legitimate and perhaps inescapable choice for an urban crime film in 1973, but it is also at least an order of magnitude cooler than anyone in the movie, even sunglassed Jackie Brown tooling around in long-lapeled paisley shirts and a '71 Plymouth Road Runner painted something between chartreuse and Day-Glo, and it clashes with the overall aesthetic of subcutaneous unease. The best parts are a kind of nervous jazz, drifting, fidgeting, peering in at the action like Victor J. Kemper's camera through the plate glass and fluorescence of Eddie's nighttime hangouts, music for checking your watch for the thousandth time by. I like it fine independently, but I can't imagine it playing inside Eddie Coyle's head.)

No scenes in The Friends of Eddie Coyle were shot in the garage that is now a Pentecostal church on Marshall Street, but during production, by way of research, Mitchum was introduced by one of his fellow actors to Howie Winter and Johnny Martorano, respectively the second boss and one of the chief triggermen of the Winter Hill Gang. The actor who did the introducing was Alex Rocco, who was still going by Alexander "Bobo" Petricone in 1961 when his girlfriend was on the receiving end of an unwanted pickup attempt that is supposed to have sparked the seven-year escalating conflict that became known as Boston's Irish Mob War. The combatants were the Winter Hill Gang, of which Petricone was a fringe member, and the Charlestown Mob, to which the creeper belonged. Petricone traded Boston for Los Angeles and got into acting, partly mentored by fellow Bostonian Leonard Nimoy. The Charlestown Mob ceased to exist. The salient point here, aside from Rocco's true-crime suitability for the part of slick small-time hood Jimmy Scalise, is the possibility that Robert Mitchum once set foot inside a building I pass every time I catch a bus, although I concede it is equally likely they just went out to a bar somewhere. But with or without that connection, I would love this film. It's beautiful in ugly ways; it's exactingly unaffected; it's the best kind of neo-noir, not stylistically but spiritually—it isn't the crime you committed, but the crime someone beat you to that nails you. It's the well-deserved benchmark for all subsequent Boston noir and as a first movie of 2018, it set a high bar. You can watch it on Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray if you are so inclined. I hope you are. This tip brought to you by my friendly backers at Patreon.
poliphilo: (Default)

[personal profile] poliphilo 2018-01-06 12:53 pm (UTC)(link)
You've got me thinking about Mitchum and what a wonderful actor he was. I was reading round and found the quote- from an interview with Barry Norman- where he says (I'm paraphrasing) "I've got two acting styles- on a horse and off a horse".
In fact he had considerable range. The psycho in Night of the Hunter and the mild-mannered school teacher in Ryan's Daughter are worlds apart- and yet he infuses both with essence of Mitchum.
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2018-01-07 05:57 am (UTC)(link)
Have you seen Mr. North? It's a delightful semi-fantasy film from 1988, and features Robert Mitchum in a very unusual role. (Also, Harry Dean Stanton with, of all things, a Cockney accent!)
poliphilo: (Default)

[personal profile] poliphilo 2018-01-08 10:08 am (UTC)(link)
Sounds like fun.

I like HDS but you'd think they might have found a genuine cockney actor for the role. I mean, there are enough of them around.
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2018-01-08 05:41 pm (UTC)(link)
Mild spoiler: As it turns out, "genuine" would not have been appropriate for the role.
poliphilo: (Default)

[personal profile] poliphilo 2018-01-08 06:05 pm (UTC)(link)
Ah, I see....

asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2018-01-06 02:32 pm (UTC)(link)
It's beautiful in ugly ways--I've come to love that kind of beauty.

any half-decent set dresser can fake license plates, but not the oil stains of asphalt or the weathering of brick. --the oil stains on the asphalt. That detail--your noticing it. Perfect. I really love your whole description of the neighborhood--the trees trimmed like slingshots. So right.
gwynnega: (Leslie Howard mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2018-01-07 01:34 am (UTC)(link)
This sounds like just the sort of seventies film I adore.

(What you said about the polluted Charles River reminded me of the Standells' song "Dirty Water," apparently a paean to the Charles.)