Monday, May 23, 2011

The Friends Of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not only one of the best crime novels about Boston – and arguably the best thing George V. Higgins ever wrote – but also one of the best crime movies about Boston as well. Granted, there is something dull about the pacing and the cinematography of the movie, but that only makes it more faithful to its subject. It seems to take place in Boston during one of our more colorless and dismal months, such as March or November. It also takes place in the 1970’s - the very nadir of Boston’s economic decline before it rebounded as a hi-tech and financial powerhouse in the eighties. This ambience of rundown drabness reflects the state of the protagonist, too. Eddie Coyle, played by Robert Mitchum, is an aging third-rate mobster who has to inform on his cronies to keep out of jail. He hands a gunrunner over to Richard Jordan’s undercover cop, and then finks on a stewardess-bonking bank robber played by Alex Rocco. When the mob kingpin-cum-bartender he works for gets wind of his efforts, he treats poor tired old Eddie to a Bruins game and a night on the town and then shoots him in the head as he begins sleep off the booze on the way home. Ironically, the kingpin – played by Peter Boyle with sinister restraint - was himself an informant, and to the same cop at that. Nobody can trust anybody in this story, to an almost comical degree. This is a trope that unifies this piece of classic crime fiction with the so-called “paranoid style” of the 1970’s. (Tellingly, Higgins later wrote an ill-received screed called The Friends of Richard Nixon.) At the same time its baroque theme of betrayal makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle a precursor of later movies like Reservoir Dogs that are themselves postmodern parodies of the old double-cross.

The original novel was the first one George V. Higgins published, after 17 failed attempts, and he went on to write more than twenty others before he died in 1999 at the age of fifty-nine. He also had a busy career as a U.S. Attorney. His books are unique in that they are written almost entirely in dialogue, usually profane and often very lengthy, the same guy talking on for pages. The movie script for Eddie Coyle was nearly catatonic in comparison. He presents an interesting contrast with Robert B. Parker. They were both born in the 1930’s, started publishing around the same time and cranked out reams of stuff about their chosen territories. Yet Parker remains an icon of detective fiction while Higgins is scarcely remembered.

For an interesting tidbit about the movie, consider that the bank robber Jimmy Scalise was played by Alex Rocco. Rocco was a native of Cambridge, Mass. who grew up in Somerville and hung out with Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill gang in his youth. According to Wikipedia, he was involved in an incident that set off “the Boston Irish Gang War of the 1960’s”. Young Rocco had the good sense to leave Boston for California, change his name (from Petricone) and become an actor. All of us miscreants should make such lucky choices in our own lives.

George V. Higgins (Wikipedia)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Wikipedia)
Alex Rocco (Wikipedia)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (
Obituary - George V. Higgins (The Independent)

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