Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dialogue as Action: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Directed by Peter Yates)
Described by Elmore Leonard as ‘the best crime novel ever written’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an uncompromising and bleak account of criminal life on the mean streets of Boston. The story of a small-time gun-runner desperate to avoid going to prison, George V. Higgins’s 1972 fictional debut is constructed as an elegant series of interlocking dialogues which gradually reveal the book’s theme: an elaborate play of exploitation and betrayal. 

The dialogue is a virtuoso representation of genuine speech, compact and stylized yet not so self-conscious as to come across as overtly literary. The scenes are fragmented while significant events occur out of view. Events unravel without a moral purpose: a detached aesthetic that owes much to Higgins’s experience as a lawyer acquainted with the inner workings of the Boston criminal system. 

Throughout his writing career Higgins maintained his view that the best way to tell a story is by gradually exposing its outline through the conversations of its characters. Avoiding lengthy descriptive passages, and by focusing almost exclusively on his characters’ talk, he obliges the reader to pay attention to the dialogue if they want to know what is going on. 

In his book On Writing, a discourse on the writer’s craft intended for aspiring writers, Higgins discusses his reliance on dialogue:
Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialog is all I have; or that writing dialog is not the most important attribute a novelist can have . . .  A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialog can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialog so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was made into a superb, underrated film in 1973. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle, the script by Hollywood veteran Paul Monash sticks closely to Higgins’s aesthetic. The expressionless tone of the characters’ dialogue, the stark narrative and the unfolding tragedy of events, creates an overall effect that is at once fascinating and unsettling.

On release in 1973 the film was met with disappointment and confusion: the book seemed not to work on screen; critics found the movie flat and under-dramatized. Seen today, these alleged shortcomings now seem like strengths. The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a cadence and style of its own. The inventiveness of Higgins’s plot and the terseness of his language are reflected in a striking and extended visual scheme — Victor Kemper’s cold, urban cinematography reduces the city to abstract surfaces of diners, suburban banks, shopping-malls, parking lots — and an acting ensemble in empathy with the film’s mood of nonchalance and terror.

A crime film with minimal violence or overt displays of aggression, Yates’s direction finds the right pitch as one critic describes it as ‘somewhere near the edge of desperation’. As embodied by Robert Mitchum, in his last great role, the tone is deliberately undramatic. Action is mundane and professional, from the business-like masked bank-robbers to the hired hit-man negotiating over the fee for killing his friend. Despite the milieu of routine mistrust, of people going about their business, from robbing banks, selling guns or catching crooks, the underlying violence and chaos of their world is never far away.

The Criterion release of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle on DVD includes an essay by the critic Kent Jones. In the following extract he discusses the film’s themes, aesthetic and how dialogue in George V. Higgins’s world is central to telling the story:


‘I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality,’ said Robert Mitchum of the novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle and its author, George V. Higgins. Yet he could have been describing the film itself, a melancholy succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of the Greater Boston area during late fall, going into winter. A middleman bargains with a gunrunner, the gunrunner bargains with a pair of wannabe bank robbers, a cop bargains with his stoolie, and the stoolie bargains with the man who works for the Man. The chips on the table may be machine guns or information or money, but the ‘humor’ looming over every encounter is survival.

Politeness and bonhomie are strictly provisional, and everybody knows it, which is what gives this film its terrible sadness. In the miserable economy of power in Boston’s rumpled gray underworld, Eddie and his ‘friends’ are all expendable, and the ones left standing play every side against the middle, their white-knuckle terror carefully concealed under several layers of nonchalance and resignation. There’s not a punch thrown, and only two fatal shots are fired, but this seemingly artless film leaves a deeper impression of dog-eat-dog brutality than many of the blood-soaked extravaganzas that preceded it and came in its wake.


The Friends of Eddie Coyle is, in many ways, an inside job. Meaning that there’s not a minute spent orienting the viewer. The tale of a low-level mobster who gives up one of his contacts in a failed effort to bargain his way out of a New Hampshire prison stint is imparted to us a little bit at a time, through a series of seemingly affable but quietly desperate sit-downs between criminals and cops, or other criminals, in crummy coffee shops, underpopulated bars, and public spaces that give new meaning to the word ordinary. The filmmakers never do anything in the way of rhetorical underlining.

Director Peter Yates, born and trained in England and mostly known at this relatively early point in his career for his 1968 film Bullitt (and, to those fortunate enough to have seen it in the States, for the excellent Robbery), was an interesting choice for this material. Like that Steve McQueen classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an all-action experience. But two crisply executed bank heists and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside, the kinetic excitement here is sparked by the verbal and gestural rhythms between the actors as they plead for their lives across dingy Beantown tabletops. Yates’s camera eye stays so casually observant and his cinematic syntax so spare throughout that when he finally retreats to a plaintive distance in the aftermath of the film’s one inevitable tragedy, it packs a considerable punch. At which point, Dave Grusin’s score, the busiest thing in the movie apart from the gunrunner’s patterned shirts and canary yellow muscle car, finally settles into a plangent farewell.


Off-handed fatalism is embedded in every word of every exchange, each of which alternates between hide-and-seek games and verbal tugs-of-war. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an extremely faithful adaptation (in structure, spirit, and flavor) of the first published novel by the Brockton, Massachusetts–born Higgins, whose career as a United States prosecutor and then big-time criminal defense lawyer (his clients included Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy) coincided with his ascendancy as a novelist, and whose dialogue is one of the glories of American literature. ‘I’m not doing dialogue because I like doing dialogue,’ Higgins once said. ‘The characters are telling you the story. I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it. If I do it right, you will get the whole story.’ What is remarkable about the film is the extreme degree to which Yates and the producer and writer, Paul Monash, adhere to Higgins’s aesthetic, banking on the contention that if you render the action among the characters as faithfully as possible, their entire moral universe will be revealed.


And so it is. ‘Look, one of the first things I learned is never to ask a man why he’s in a hurry,’ says Robert Mitchum’s Eddie to Steven Keats’s inappropriately relaxed arms salesman, Jackie Brown (guess who’s a fan of this movie), in what might be the film’s most emblematic bit of table talk. ‘All you got to know is that I told the man he can depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I’ve learned: if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.’ As in every good dialogue-driven film, talk in The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals action. In this case, manoeuvring for leverage and self-preservation...

– Extracted from ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle: They Were Expendable’ by Kent Jones. For the full article go here

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