George V. Higgins

Eddie Coyle comes to the stage, almost

Saturday afternoon, a new stage play of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was unveiled at the Burren in Somerville. The little theater at the back of the bar was packed. I’d guess there were 150 or so people there. There was a wonderful excited mood in the room. This was a one-off performance of a work in progress, a peek into the process of how a play is shaped. It was only a staged reading — actors reading from scripts, no costumes or sets — so it is obviously too early to comment on the production itself, but so far it looked very promising.

The difficulties and pleasures of staging “Eddie Coyle” are about what you’d expect. Higgins’ wised-up streetcorner dialogue begs to be spoken aloud, and a lot of the novel’s best riffs are recited seemingly verbatim. The hard part is compressing the story onto a small stage, especially on a limited budget. The novel includes scenes in cars, a bank robbery, a home invasion, a trashy trailer home, a supermarket parking lot, a Bruins game at Boston Garden. Worse, in the book the plot itself is shadowy. Higgins does not spell out what is happening to Eddie. He lets the dialogue swirl around and around, and it is up to the reader to piece the story together, just as it is up to Eddie. On a first reading, the book can be confusing. Obviously that won’t work on stage. So playwright Bill Doncaster has altered a few scenes and dropped others to streamline and clarify. The results were mostly good. Some incidents (the arrest of Jackie Brown, the invasion of a banker’s home in Lynn) were hard to follow if you didn’t know the story beforehand. But, again, this was only a walk-through on a bare stage. The play is a work in progress. When it is properly staged and after some tinkering with the script, these things will become clearer.

More important than all these technical things, the play is true to the spirit of Higgins’ novel, truer even than the 1973 movie starring Robert Mitchum (which I love). Mitchum gave a great performance as Eddie Coyle, but to me he was miscast. Mitchum was a leading man, big, charismatic, cool. Eddie Coyle is none of these things. He is a loser at the bottom rung of semi-organized crime, past his prime, used by everyone around him from the guy who hires him to drive a truckload of stolen booze to the FBI agent who squeezes him for tips. It would have been a good role for a “Midnight Cowboy”-era Dustin Hoffman rather than Mitchum. Eddie is Ratso Rizzo with a Boston accent and a few extra pounds. Doncaster’s play gets this bottom-feeding world just right.

The three lead actors are wonderful. Eddie is played here by Paulo Branco, a local actor who reminded me of the film actor Dan Hedaya. Branco plays Eddie as an anti-Mitchum: desperate, whiny, weak, dense, a loser just smart enough to know how much danger he is in. Great casting, great choices by the actor. To watch Branco cheer like an exuberant little kid for Bobby Orr gives you a completely different Eddie Coyle than Mitchum’s cool, heavy-lidded portrayal. (And if you have to ask why those 1969-70 Bruins would make a grown man cheer like a kid, you are either too young to remember or you aren’t from Boston. I know where I was on Mothers Day in 1970.)

Rick Park as Dillon is the other cornerstone of this production. I chatted with Bill Doncaster yesterday, and he mentioned that he saw Dillon as a sort of Iago, a perspective that really sharpens this character. Dillon is even more important here than in the book or movie. Rick Park brings some of the heaviness and watchful intelligence that Peter Boyle brought to the role in the film. His Dillon is older, wiser, wearier than Boyle’s, a sharper character even than Higgins drew in the book.

The other standout in the cast is Peter Darrigo, who makes a completely convincing Boston tough guy in the role of Coyle’s associate Jimmy Scalisi. On the down side, Tom Berry seems to be searching still for how to play the FBI agent Dave Foley. Foley comes off here as just another wiseguy rather than a button-down Fed who works in an office, not on a streetcorner. In the story, Foley uses Eddie and betrays him without a second thought. That requires a more complex character than Berry has managed to capture so far. But this is a work in progress — it is too early to criticize a performance. It is hard to hold back, though. I am rooting for this production, so I want Berry to succeed.

So far the play looks great. Doncaster tells me he is still searching for a theater to stage it. Here’s hoping he finds one. It is hard to believe that after all these years there could be a fresh take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but this could be one. If you’re a Bostonian, you should be rooting for this play to make it.

More info from the Boston Globe here. You can also join a Facebook page for the production here.

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle … Live

Playwright Bill Doncaster emailed the following press release the other day. I’ve already gushed about Eddie Coyle enough on this blog, both the novel and the film, so you will not be surprised to hear that this sounds incredibly cool to me. I’ll be at the Burren to see it. You should be, too.

George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle… LIVE

Staged reading, Saturday, Nov. 13, 3 p.m. The Burren, Davis Square, Free

SOMERVILLE – Widely regarded as the greatest Boston crime novel ever written, a staged reading of a new theatrical adaptation of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle will be performed at The Burren, Somerville, on Nov. 13 at 3 p.m.

Adapted for the stage by Bill Doncaster, directed by Maria Silvaggi, The Friends of Eddie Coyle chronicles the lowest rungs of the criminal underworld, as Eddie Coyle attempts to stay alive and out of jail in the company of gun runners, bank robbers, hit men and cops in and around 1970 Boston. Critically acclaimed since its release in 1972, Elmore Leonard called The Friends of Eddie Coyle “The best crime novel ever written — makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.”

This staged reading is free, donations for the cast will be graciously accepted, rsvp required: afriendofeddie@gmail.com.

The cast includes Paulo Branco as Eddie Coyle, Rick Park as Dillon, Tom Berry as Dave Foley, Peter Darrigo as Jimmy Scalisi, Jason Lambert as Jackie Brown, Jen Alison Lewis as Wanda, and featuring Jim Barton, Derrick Martin, Courtney Miranda, and Jeremy Lee.

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The Definitive Boston Crime Novel: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Yesterday I wrote about the film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think is the best movie ever made about Boston. Today, over at the Rap Sheet, my review/appreciation of the George V. Higgins novel is up, part of the Rap Sheet’s “Book You Have to Read” series highlighting forgotten classics. Here is a clip:

Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the Holt paperback edition, recalls reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it first came out. “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it. … To me it was a revelation.” Leonard has called it “the best crime novel ever written.”

Eddie Coyle was a revelation to me, as well. I was a young assistant D.A. when I first read it, another Boston College Law grad with literary aspirations. I worked in Cambridge then, across the river from Higgins’ old office. I had never read the book. I was only eight when it came out, and later I was never much of a crime-novel fan anyway. But when I hit the first page, I had the same reaction Leonard did: so this is how you do it.

Read the rest here. Of course calling any book or movie the best of its type is a good way to start an argument, but I did it yesterday so why stop now? The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel I’ve ever read.

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Best Boston Movie Ever: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Recently I wrote a short appreciation for the Rap Sheet of George V. Higgins’s definitive Boston crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The piece will run soon as part of the Rap Sheet’s terrific Friday series, Books You Have to Read, which celebrates forgotten (or never properly appreciated) crime novels. [Update: My article on the novel is now up. You can find it here.]

Fortuitously, Criterion just released a pristine new restoration of the 1973 film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and it is not to be missed. The Criterion DVD brings back a forgotten classic and the best movie about Boston ever.

Let’s be honest: there aren’t that many great movies about Boston, particularly crime stories, though the city has bred more than its share of crime novelists. There are some good movies set in Boston that could as easily take place elsewhere without losing much; The Verdict comes to mind. But movies that aim to capture this city’s unique personality — as, say, L.A. Confidential and Chinatown do for Los Angeles? Or Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America are unmistakably New York stories? Those are rare.

The serious competition is all recent. Good Will Hunting is fun but overrated. (Watch it again.) The Departed is just not a serious movie, and anyone who believes Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio would last five minutes in Whitey Bulger’s world really ought to turn off the DVD player and come out into the world for a while.

The only real challenger for the title of best Boston movie is Mystic River. But put the two films side by side and Mystic River looks like Eddie Coyle lite — Boston as Californians might imagine it. Mystic River is just too much of everything: a melodrama, pretty to look at, with gorgeous swooping helicopter-cam shots of the city skyline and a platoon of glamorous stars, all of them strenuously, visibly acting. These are the sort of big, emotive performances we now recognize as Oscar bait, Sean Penn’s in particular.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real thing. Quiet and dingy, a series of terse conversations in dim bars and gray, leafless parks. It is an ensemble piece, despite having a big-ticket star in Robert Mitchum. Voices are rarely raised. Only two fatal shots are fired. This is the reality of small-time crime life: not high drama, but a wary, exhausting series of risky transactions dimly understood even by the thick-headed hoods on the inside.

With any Boston movie, we have to consider how the difficult Boston accent is handled, too, and here Mystic River flops badly. I saw it in Boston in a theater full of Bostonians, and the audience seemed to require subtitles to understand what the hell these people were saying. Eddie Coyle has a few wobbly moments but mostly gets it right. Alex Rocco, now remembered mostly as Moe Greene in The Godfather, plays a convincing Boston hoodlum. He should: as a pudgy kid named Bobo Petricone he hung around on the periphery of the fearsome Winter Hill Gang.

Eddie Coyle is not perfect by any means. A lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel (that Higgins did not get a screenwriter credit is a travesty), and some of those lines don’t work as well in the actors’ mouths as they do on the page. And the seventies tics — the wah-wah soundtrack, the groovy idioms, “man” and “lover” and so on — can be a bit much, though you might go in for that sort of thing.

It may be, too, that the film appeals to me as a time capsule of a city I remember. To a kid who grew up in Boston, it is a kick to see Barbo’s furniture store. (Any New Englander of a certain age can sing the Barbo’s jingle, which played on car radios incessantly.) And to revisit the old Boston Garden, where Eddie watches the sports god of my childhood, “number four, Bobby Orr — what a future he has.” Just seeing Boston in late fall — completely drained of color, the trees all bare, the grayed-out sunless sky, the people dressed in drab — is enough to make me feel poignant and murderous.

But the main thing The Friends of Eddie Coyle has going for it is Mitchum, speaking the incomparable lines of George Higgins. Mitchum is not the Eddie Coyle of the book. Even in his brokedown fifties, Mitchum is too big and handsome for that. He can’t smother his leading-man charisma enough to quite become a small-time loser like Eddie. So this Eddie Coyle is Mitchum’s own creation. The booklet that accompanies the new Criterion DVD — which alone is worth the price of the disk — says that Mitchum was first offered the part of Dillon, the two-faced bartender. That part instead went to a then-unknown Peter Boyle. Good thing. Mitchum gives the the best performance of his life. He is as quiet and understated as Sean Penn is actorly. There is not a hint of the preening movie star anywhere in his performance. Watch this clip and notice how little Mitchum moves his body or alters his expression, how he communicates a lot while “signaling” very little. The effect is completely convincing. That voice, that smirking wised-up manner — true Boston.

 

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