Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (& Peter Yates)

I begin with an admission: I saw the movie first, when I was in college. And when I saw it, I fell in love. So now I show it to friends of mine as a kind of test -- as in, if they don't like the movie we can still be friends, but they better not ask me for a favor. If they like the movie, then we're family. It's crazy, I know.

Then, after college, I read the book, which changed me even more. Because as good as the movie still is, the book is even better. And, weirdly enough, the difference between them favors the book. But that's like comparing the best meal you ever had with the best sex. The appetites they satisfy may coincide, but they're not identical. And life is a whole lot better with both of them in it.

Published in 1972, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was the debut novel by George V. Higgins, a master of crime fiction whose craftsmanship, in my experience, has been challenged only by Elmore Leonard. With a minimum of scene-setting, Higgins creates an entire underworld through dialogue and interaction, the way Shakespeare did.

The title character is a small-time criminal, brokering gun deals and doing odd jobs in the Boston area. He's a middle-aged failure, having never achieved any kind of power or financial security, and he's desperate to provide for his wife & kids while a facing an impending jail sentence. The crux of his problem is he's got to decide whether to betray his contacts in order to get a lighter sentence or vigorously work those same contacts to score enough cash to tide his family over while he's incarcerated. Over the course of the novel, we listen as Eddie, whose long & rough history makes him more than a little cynical, talks to people and gets talked about, all the while moving towards an inevitable, but not entirely deserved, fate.

With The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins burst onto the literary scene fully-formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. It was a level of achievement he sustained through more than two dozen subsequent books.

A year later, in 1973, the movie came out, directed by Peter Yates (who also did another personal favorite, Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen). With the legendary Robert Mitchum cast as Eddie Coyle, Yates stays close to Higgins's novel, keeping his surfaces grimy and his actors naturalistic.

Given the lyrical nature of the source material, it would be easy for these actors (among them, the great Peter Boyle as Dillon) to lapse into sing-song recitations, like community-theater Shakespeareans. But, led by Mitchum, they don't. These aren't speaking parts for actors to project; they're people making their points as they negotiate a world that requires both wits & luck for survival.

Other critics (like Roger Ebert) have hailed Robert Mitchum's performance as Eddie Coyle as the highlight of a long & distinguished career, and I agree with them. Never have Mitchum's shaggy-dog looks and low-voltage delivery been so suited to a role. Eddie Coyle is a worn & weary soul who knows his limitations & his place in the world. But he's still an operator, making what moves he can before his opportunities all dry up. As Coyle, Mitchum conveys more with a raised eyebrow and a muttered phrase than a lesser actor could by clawing at the scenery and screaming.

So why do I think the book is so much better than the movie? Well, it has to do with the "literalness" of cinema, where everything must be actualized on screen. Instead of using a single sentence to set a scene, a movie has to create the entire scene on screen, from the furniture to the wardrobes, and this adds a layer of lushness & detail that the book can do without. And so, in the movie, our eye can wander and we can get distracted by the actuality of unimportant trivia, like the cut of someone's shirt or the musicality of the soundtrack. The movie even spends a lot of screen time on the mechanics of a bank robbery that is actually peripheral to Eddie's problems. And all of this can mire the movie in its period & milieu.

This equation doesn't always favor the book. For example, look at Francis Ford Coppola's version of The Godfather versus Mario Puzo's original book. Talk about converting lead into gold.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, however, preserves what is timeless about the story: the characters and their interactions. In this way, the novel is more economical than the movie. In fact, by focusing almost exclusively on dialog, the book highlights these conversations so that their voices engage our imaginations, which in turn engage our sympathies.

And that, my friends, is what all the best stories do.

by George V. Higgins
published by John MacRae Books

directed by Peter Yates
starring Robert Mitchum & Peter Boyle


  1. I like how you point out how visuals in a movie like this can distract you from what you should be paying attention to and can see how the book would be better in that aspect. However I do like it when a movie scene is so well crafted with the visual and soundtrack that you are just in awe of the spectacle, like the opening scene of Shutter Island with the Ferry coming out of the fog and that eerie soundtrack playing in the background.

  2. A Boston radio show host, Howie Carr, believed that Higgins developed his fantastic ear for dialog in some sort of legal job that he had which either required or allowed him to listen to FBI wiretap recordings.

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  4. Please check out this Friends of Eddie Coyle Tribute Project I produced and starred in. Enjoy!