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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.

 

Writers as Performers

Obviously the internet has blown a hole in the business model of the publishing industry, and we have all heard dire predictions that digital will obliterate printed books altogether. The doomsday scenario usually maps to the demise of the music CD: Kindle equals iPod, Amazon equals iTunes, eBook equals MP3. The details may vary, but the end is always the same — the poor printed book is the next unfortunate dinosaur technology to be smashed into extinction.

If that is indeed how things play out — and who knows — then we writers may well find ourselves in a situation like today’s emerging musicians. In the MP3 era, bands do not “break” by getting radio play. They freely give away much of their music over the web and make up for the lost sales by touring constantly. Ticket sales replace CD sales, at least in theory. This may be a lamentable change from the musicians’ point of view, but the truth is “any new music-related business must accept the fact that it’s competing against a huge store of readily available free music, and build that fact into its business model.”

There is as yet no iTunes for books, no single, dominant legitimate online seller, let alone a killer peer-to-peer platform like Napster or Bit Torrent. And the Kindle and Sony Reader are as yet no match for even the earliest iPods in terms of design, usability, or sheer coolness. For many other reasons, especially having to do with the nature of books and book readers, the switch to digital is not likely to be as apocalyptic for writers as it has been for musicians, at least in the near term. But when the change comes, however it plays out, how will authors replace the income lost to digital distribution and piracy?

One thing is for sure: Malcolm Gladwell is sure to survive the flood. Gladwell is flourishing even in this twilight era by doing what indie bands have done: performing. He reportedly commands forty thousand dollars for live appearances, no doubt much more for the corporations who often hire him to speak. Last year he even displaced “The Lion King” from its home in the Lyceum Theater in London’s West End, for one night only, for two shows. The Gladwell shows sold about 4,000 tickets at £20 apiece. Gladwell said of his London shows, “The Lyceum evening was very 19th-century, in a way. Dickens and Twain and countless others gave lectures of that sort in theaters like that all the time.”

Does all this have any significance for the rest of us? Can mere mortals take a lesson from Gladwell? Well, most writers cannot do what Gladwell does, obviously. Gladwell is a celebrity. He also happens to be a gifted speaker. In appearances on stage and on TV, he is a natural storyteller and raconteur. Whatever you think of his books — and the backlash against Outliers has been harsh; Michiko Kakutani’s review in the Times described it as “glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing” — as a writer looking to the future, you have to wonder if Gladwell isn’t onto something.

Consider the usual bookstore reading. The author is sweaty and uncomfortable on stage, or vaguely pissed off at having to do a dog-and-pony show merely to sell books. Usually he has little to offer beyond a bald pitch for the book. He will relate a story or two about where the idea for the book came from, invariably he will read (badly) a paragraph or two, answer a few desultory questions, and that’s it. It’s not much of a show. Now watch Gladwell on stage. He takes seriously his duty to entertain the audience that shows up to see him. He has a story to tell. He has practiced the craft of live storytelling and honed his material. He is a thoroughly professional speaker — which is to say, he is an entertainer.

Most writers will never be able to earn a dime on the speaking circuit, as Gladwell has done. Nor, frankly, should we have to. A book is not a song or a speech: it is not intended to be performed live. It is intended to be “heard” only in the intimacy of the reader’s mind.

But I have a feeling that the writers who survive will have to be a little more like Gladwell. We will have to be better showmen. Gladwell has a point in looking back to Dickens and Twain, who also lived in an era of looser copyright protection and rampant piracy. What these writers knew was that, while their books could easily be reproduced, the author’s genuine presence could not. Unlike indie bands, we cannot replace book sales with live appearances. But we can do a much better job of using these appearances to drive sales by taking seriously the opportunity that a reading or live appearance provides.

How? Watch Gladwell. Or watch any of the presenters at the TED conference. Don’t sit behind a desk or stand behind a lectern. Don’t lecture; tell a story, preferably one that is not just a pale summary of your book. Learn to use PowerPoint or Keynote. Study presentation gurus like Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte for ideas. Whatever you do, don’t read — at least, don’t just read. You have twenty minutes to fascinate your audience. Make it count. Put on a show.

I have broken every one of these rules thus far in my career. I have been told by editors and agents not to waste my time on readings, that you cannot reach enough people to move the needle by speaking to a dozen people at a time. But the world has changed in the last few months, and in the wreckage of the publishing industry there will be room for fewer writers. So writers, grab every opportunity you can, including readings. It is one of the few opportunities you will have to separate yourself from the run of ordinary writers.