"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

So there I was minding my own business, listening to an interview with Elmore Leonard. Suddenly out of the blue Elmore mentions this book I didn’t know about, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. He says it was a revelation to him, showed him that you could use profanity in a book and that you didn’t have to tell a straight forward story. And he calls it the best crime novel ever written.

So, through the miracle of opening another window, I ordered a used copy of the book before the interview was even over. Much later it arrived, then I read it, then I loaned it to somebody and his car was stolen with it inside and later they found his car and the car thieves didn’t take the book with them. Their loss, my gain, because Elmore Leonard was right, it’s a hell of a book. Pretty much the first half of the book is all conversations, almost no description. Later some robberies start happening and it turns more into a traditional book. But it doesn’t have your normal type of a story here. It’s more a portrait of these characters and it kind of shows the complexity of a network of criminals, snitches and cops. And it has a great ear for the dialogue. Higgins I guess was a lawyer before he became a writer, maybe he was around some of these guys.

The Friends of Eddie CoyleIt didn’t occur to me to check for a movie of the book, but conferring with a fellow book reader type individual I learned about it. Paramount never released it on video [UPDATE: it has since been released by Criterion], but you know what? The streets will find a way. The streets will find a way. (The streets in this case are a metaphor for the internet. They got downloading now, and I don’t know how to do it but young people do and sometimes they will burn it for you.) In the movie version Eddie Coyle is played by Robert Mitchum. The director is Peter Yates, director of BULLITT, THE HOT ROCK and MOTHER, JUGGS AND SPEED. Also he did KRULL but that doesn’t count. The score is funky fusiony shit by Dave Grusin, sounds kind of like the score for OUT OF SIGHT.

And I’ll be damned if this isn’t a lost gem. It stays surprisingly faithful to the book, with most of the dialogue lifted right out of there, and not really adding in a bunch of shit to Hollywood it up. I guess it might be unsatisfying to some people, because it’s not really what you expect. Eddie is a small timer and he stays a small timer. Robert Mitchum makes him a badass, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna do something awesome at the end. There are a bunch of characters and, like in the book, you sort of have to piece together what’s going on from the conversations they’re having. I guess it’s a story about talking: criminals talking to cops about things you’re not supposed to tell cops, cops trying to talk criminals into telling them more, criminals talking to other criminals about what they want and how much they’re gonna pay and etc. Whatever action comes up (a gun here, a car there) is rare and brief.

But to me it’s real fascinating how it all works, there’s this whole totem pole. There’s some guys who are doing some robberies, they get their guns from Eddie. Eddie gets those guns from Jackie Brown (no relation). Jackie Brown gets them from some kids who steal them from gun stores. Also Jackie is working on this other deal to sell some machine guns. Eddie is working on an appeal to avoid doing 2 years. He wants to snitch on somebody so a cop will put in a good word for him, but he can’t snitch on the robbers or he’s a dead man, so he wants to snitch on the machine gun people. Also Peter Boyle is in there as Dillon, this bartender who also has his hands in all this business. It’s gritty stuff. And it’s ’73 so you got some good cars and sideburns and shit in there.

In the movie Jackie says, “This life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re stupid.” And you know what, it’s stupid that Paramount or somebody hasn’t released this on DVD. You want my advice, go get a quote from Tarantino and put it on the cover. I guarantee you he’s seen it, and not just because there’s a character named Jackie Brown (which was not the name of the character in Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard book he adapted that from). The book even moreso than the movie really reminded me of RESERVOIR DOGS. There’s a robbery where a guy trips an alarm so one of the robber shoots him. In the book there’s discussions about how stupid it was to shoot him, because he’s already tripped the alarm and all you’re doing is bringing the cops down on you harder. There’s also alot of conversations unrelated to the plot, like one about how grilled cheese sandwiches aren’t very good usually but they can be if you put mayonaise on them. Tell me that’s not a Tarantino topic. Maybe it was a an indirect influence, because Higgins influenced Leonard and Leonard influenced Tarantino. But reading this book I got a hunch that Tarantino got some tips from it.

Anyway, check it out if you can. The one somebody loaned me was from an old print, the colors were faded and there were lots of scratches on it. But it looked clear and was very watchable.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 1st, 2007 at 9:32 pm and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

  1. Vern, Criterion is releasing this later this month. So hopefully more people will see it. I’m looking forward to watching it.

  2. Hey! I was about to post the same thing, this along with John Huston’s Wise Blood are the next Criterion purchases for me.

  3. I’m really looking forward to the Godard films their putting out soon. One of them is Verns’ favorite, MADE IN U.S.A.

  4. Man, I’m going to order this book before watching the film. Fuck, if Elmore sings its praises it must be worth checking out.

  5. It’s a good book. It’s basically 90% dialogue, so it just flies by on reams on snappy patter.

  6. I’ll take your word, man. If Elmore bows down to the guy, there must be something. Thanks for the heads up. £6 at Amazon… I really wanted to read The Grifters at some point this week, but you guys have attacked my taste buds.

  7. Just finished the book last week, it was a really cool read. It took me a few days of mulling it over before I excepted it as an awesome book – which is always a good sign. Plus I now know the perfect cheese sandwich recipe.

    Thanks for the heads up, Vern. I’ll try and find the film now

  8. It’s a great movie, but the book is better. They really pared down the idea of the underworld as a network that never stops extending or self-perpetuating. I do think the casting of Mitchum tipped the scales towards the movie focusing on Eddie, which counterpoints the central thesis of the book which is that Eddie Coyle was just another cog in the wheel, and it will continue turning just fine without him. By ending the movie instead with people discussing Eddie, they push him into the center in a way that counteracts the central point.

    And then there’s shit that I miss because I’m a nitpicky asshole. So it bums me out they left out individual moments that had my favorite lines, like the bank robbers arguing about when it is or isn’t appropriate to kill somebody, or the Fed’s discussing ways to improve the qualities of sandwiches. And I miss the way that Eddie is doomed not by Dillon or someone specifically out to get him, but by a stupid chain of accidents none of which involve him but still seal his fate.

    If I hadn’t read the book I’d be hailing this as a flawless piece of work, but as is it’s a great film based on a fucking phenomenal book.

  9. Since this review, and perhaps more vital the release of it on DVD (and eventually Blu-ray), it’s gained a little more notoriety. It was referenced twice on two FX shows, name-dropped by Denis Leary’s character on RESCUE ME and the novel itself has a small cameo in the final episode of JUSTIFIED. It’s also briefly in THE TOWN, with Jeremy Renner’s character watching it on television. Criterion has a feature on their website, where film-makers, actors and celebrities choose their top ten releases. Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson chose it as part of their lists.

    Haven’t read the novel but probably ought to, the author of which also wrote the novel that KILLING THEM SOFTLY was based on (but I won’t hold it against him). I came away with this really in love with the idea of an old-Hollywood type like Robert Mitchum completely giving into the new way of thinking with film in the 70’s, without forsaking the trademarks that made him a star originally. More recently I’ve seen THE YAKUZA and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY on Filmstruck and this cemented that love a bit more. THE YAKUZA particularly, as it’s shockingly respectful of Japanese culture for an American film which often times can go a bit tone-deaf even if it meant well enough.

  10. Just watched this for the first time last night. It’s so good I’d love to see you revisit it for an anniversary or something. I really dug how pathetic most of these characters are, ready to betray each other at all times, with zero loyalty (and the cops are about as sleazy). The Jackie character has a ton of great dialogue and steals the movie imo.

    This would be a great double with Mikey & Nicky.

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