Category Archives: Neo Noir

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Of the crime films coming out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law.

And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five-year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky.

We first glimpse Coyle getting his coffee and slice of pie in an all night diner before sitting down to talk business with the young Turk, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), from who he gets his merchandise.

The punk gives him lip and Coyle has to set him straight with the story about how he got his nickname and an extra set of knuckles on one hand, courtesy of a gun deal gone wrong.

“You can’t trace these guns, I guarantee that,” whines Brown.

“You better, or neither of us will be able to shake hands,” deadpans Coyle.

Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information. What he has to figure out is how to parley it into a get out of jail card without giving away everything he knows and turning into a full-time snitch.

And he knows a lot.

In particular, he knows about the gang of professional bank robbers to whom he’s been supplying handguns sourced from Brown. We see the gang in the film’s opening (led by Alex Rocco – Moe Green in the first Godfather movie – a former Boston criminal underworld habitué), tailing the manager of one their intended targets as he leaves his plush suburban home.

Coyle has other friends, notably Dillon (Peter Boyle), who supplements his day job working in a bar by doing hits for the mob and informing to a cop named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), for 20 dollars a week.

When Coyle discovers Brown is planning to sell machine guns to a couple of criminally inclined hippies, he gives Foley the information in return for the policeman’s promise to talk to the judge about his upcoming sentence.

Foley arrests Brown with the machine guns, then tells Coyle that the judge wants him working on something else before he’ll consider letting him walk on his jail sentence, something to prove he’s rehabilitating himself.

“You telling me they want me to turn permanent fink,” says Coyle, realising the trap he’s fallen into. “Permanent god damn fink.”

“You go someplace and have yourself a glass of beer and a long talk with yourself,” replies Foley unruffled. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”

“I should have known better than to have trusted a cop,” says Coyle. “My own god damn mother could have told me that.”

“Everyone should listen to their mother.”

In his essay for the Criterion re-release of the film, critic Kent Jones describes it as “a succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of Greater Boston area during late fall going on winter”.

It’s a triumph of less-is-more filmmaking. Apart from a couple of quick bank heists and the scene when Brown is arrested in the car park of a large shopping mall, the film is about criminals talking about the process and mechanics of their work, delivering life lessons, sending a man to jail, ordering the killing of another with barely a raised voice between them. Director Peter Yates (best known for the 1968 hit, Bullitt) makes virtually zero effort to explain to the viewer what is going on or who is connected to whom.

With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle.  He totally inhabits the persona of an anonymous low life, “a heavy set guy, looks like a Mick,” as Brown describes him.

Supporting Mitchum is a fantastic group of character actors.

Keats’ Jackie Brown is all twitchy paranoia and testosterone in a flash car and funky wardrobe. Jordan is also excellent as a slick cop prepared to cut a few corners to make an arrest. Turning on the charm one minute, twisting the knife the next, he’s easily as ruthless as the criminals he’s up against.

Boyle displays not a shred of personality as Dillon. His barman cum mob hit man is a question mark, a blank slate. He gives Foley the details of the gang who’ve been robbing banks, lets Coyle get the blame, then agrees to kill him at the bequest of some nameless mafia operative, all without a flicker of emotion. His only qualm is whether he’ll be paid up front or not.

“You just get the envelope up here,” Dillon says into the phone as an unsuspecting Coyle sits only metres away at the bar. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The film’s other big draw is the dialogue. Sourced from the book of the same name by George V. Higgins, the script drips with jaded wisdom and criminal ennui.

“One of the first things I learned is never ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” Coyle tells Brown in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. “All you got to know is I told the man he could 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 learned, if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”

“You finished?” says Brown impatiently.

“No, I am not finished. Look, I’m getting old. You hear? I spent most of my time hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinking the beer, eating the hash and hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how I’m gonna to pay the plumber. I’ve done time and I stood up but I can’t take any more chances.”

It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that with friends like his, Coyle ran out of chances long ago.

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Cutter’s Way: post traumatic noir

American crime films in the seventies and early eighties were littered with the damaged veterans of the Vietnam War.

They appear in most of the key crime sub-genres: the revenge film (Rolling Thunder), the road movie (Electra Glide in Blue), the drug sub-culture (Who’ll Stop the Rain, the adaption of Robert Stone’s novel, Dog Soldiers), and Blaxsploitation (the 1973 film, Gordon’s War, to name just one of many).

Film noir’s contribution is the 1981 movie, Cutter’s Way.

As Woody Haut argued in Neon Noir, his book on contemporary American crime fiction, Vietnam not only damaged the body politic it blurred the line between the perpetrators of crimes and the people who investigate them. In Cutter’s Way the quest to avenge a young woman’s murder is left to the rejects and outsiders who populate the underbelly of post-Vietnam American society.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), a part-time gigolo and boat salesman, is returning from a late night assignation when his beat-up car stalls in an alleyway. Another vehicle pulls up behind him and in the heavy rain and headlight glare we see a man get out and throw something into a nearby rubbish bin. The car speeds off, nearly hitting Bone in the process. As he walks off in disgust, the camera pauses on a stilettoed female foot protruding from the bin.

Bone returns to the Santa Barbara house he shares with Cutter (John Heard) and his wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Mo is a sharp-tongued alcoholic. Cutter has a face full of scar tissue, only one arm and a permanent limp from his tour in Vietnam. He’s a ball of barely contained bitterness and fury.

Next morning garbage men find the young woman’s body. Of course the fact that Bone’s car is parked nearby makes him a suspect and the cops bring him in for questioning.

They attempt to sweat a confession out of him, going into how the victim died (badly), even wheeling in her sister, Valerie, to try and guilt trip him in admitting to the crime. However, in the face Bone’s protestations all he could see through the rain was a dark shape in sunglasses, the cops are forced to kick him loose.

Later, pausing with Mo and Cutter to watch a passing parade in celebration of Santa Barbara’s Spanish heritage, Bone thinks he sees the man who might have been the one dumping the body. He’s shocked when Cutter informs him the person he’s fingered is J.J. Cord, a local business big shot.

Cutter slowly starts to put together pieces of evidence linking Cord to the crime. Cord’s burnt out car was discovered in another location on the same night as the woman was murdered. The last place she was seen was a disco across the road from a hotel function attended by the businessman, “a little reception for some oil people”.

While these are at best circumstantial, to Cutter they are evidence of a much greater conspiracy, or at least an opportunity to make money – we’re not sure which yet – and it’s not long until he’s pressuring Bone to come in on a plan he’s hatched with Valerie to blackmail Cord, then turn him in to the cops regardless of what he does.

Bone tells Cutter the scheme is crazy and he should be careful. Cutter replies it is Bone who should be careful, as he is the only witness to the crime, a fact that’s been conveniently splashed across the front page of the local newspaper.

Cord is one of the those guys who are a staple of hard-boiled noir; the tough as nails businessman who has dragged himself up by his bootstraps, an ex-wildcatter who made a fortune in the oil business. His power and liking of casual violence – in this case directed at young female hitchhikers – are matched only by the impunity with which he gets away with things. The kind of man you don’t want to mess with.

Bone eventually agrees to deliver the blackmail letter. We see him walking into Cord’s anonymous Los Angeles corporate office while Cutter and Valerie wait in the car. Only later does he admit he was only bluffing and never intended to deliver anything.

While Bone returns to Santa Barbara, Cutter remains to follow through his plot, ringing Bone to gloat he’s dropped off the blackmail letter. Meanwhile, Bone sleeps with Mo then slinks off into the night, only finding out next morning that their house has been burnt to the ground with Mo inside it.

Standing amid the smoking ruins, an image that strongly evokes Vietnam, Cutter is in no doubt who the culprit is. Putting aside their grief and anger at each other, he and Bone team up to confront Cord at a party at his mansion.

They’re a sight, Bone dressed as a chauffeur ferrying a formerly attired Cutter armed with a pistol in the backseat of a limo. The act gets them past the front gate muscle and eventually into Cord’s house for the film’s bleak ending.

With its ambiguous plot, minimal action and lack of (then) name stars, it’s a wonder Cutter’s Way ever got a release. The director, Ivan Passer was a virtual unknown, as was Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, who shaped the screenplay from the 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by cult author Newton Thornburg. The film bombed at release. The studio only persevered with it following a persistent campaign by a number of film critics.

Bridges plays Bone as a dissolute lounge lizard. His character and Lisa Eichhorn’s sultry booze drenched Mo dance around each other for most of the film, repelling and attracting each other in equal parts. “I don’t like you when you’re stoned,” says Bone. “Hey Rich,” she replies without hesitation, “I don’t like you when I’m straight.”

But it’s the underrated John Heard (remember him as the washed cop in the Sopranos?) that steals every scene he is in. Cutter is a tragic figure one moment, a self-pitying bigot who is more than happy to use Vietnam as an excuse for his behaviour, the next. After deliberately trashing the neighbour’s car on a drunken spree, he goes inside his house to put only his military duffel coat so he can play the wounded veteran routine when the cops arrive.

But although he’s prepared to play the Vietnam card when convenient, the injustice of his experience is not lost on him. In response to Bone’s questioning about why he’s so keen to pin the murder on Cord, Cutter replies, “Because he’s responsible”, if not for the death of the girl, then for the war. “Because it’s never his arse on the line. Never. It’s always somebody else’s.”

A key theme in Thornburg’s books is retribution for the young who fall prey to the dangerous and amoral lure of post-Summer of Love California. Another of his books, To Die in California, centres on a cattle farmer from Illinois who sets out to discover how his son died in California, the only witnesses to the boy’s apparent suicide and a fixer for an ambitious political fixer and a rich but idle woman.

Cutter’s Way portrays a corrupt and paranoid world, where government, big corporations and the political elite are responsible for much of society’s wrongs, whether it is dropping napalm on peasant villages or killing a 17-year old girl, and justice is at best pyrrhic.

As he aims a pistol at Cord in the very final scene of the film, Bone says, “It was you.”

Cord just smiles, puts on his sunglasses and says, “What if it were?”

This article originally appeared in Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week in August 2010.

The Red Riding trilogy: David Peace’s Northern England nightmare

The Red Riding Trilogy: 1974, 1980, 1983

Seldom does the nuance and grit of hard-boiled and noir crime fiction translate to the screen. A brilliant exception is the movie adaptations of English writer David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet of books.

Tony Crisoni – who has very few credits of note under his belt with the exception of the screenplay for the 1998 version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – has taken Peace’s dense, multi-layered alternative history of murder and police corruption in northern England in the seventies and early eighties, and delivered three disturbing and gripping movies. A feat that is all the more amazing given they were made for TV in the UK.

The first film, 1974, follows cocky young reporter Eddie Dunford as he attempts to prize open the mystery surrounding the unsolved murders of a number of young girls, the latest of whom has just been found sexually abused and with swan’s wings stitched to her back.

In the course of his investigation he comes into contact with John Dawson, a local businessman embroiled in a corrupt relationship with the police, and BJ, an elusive male prostitute. He also becomes sexually involved with the despondent mother of one of the missing girls. In the face of escalating threats, Dunford continues his efforts to find the truth with horrendous consequences.

1980, the second installment fast forwards to the last month of the real-life investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper. Assistant Constable Peter Hunter, or ‘Saint Cunt’ as his enemies in the force dub him, is recruited to lead an internal inquiry into the police’s handling of the Ripper murders. The public and media are baying for an outcome and police morale is at rock bottom. Reviewing the cases, Hunter discovers one of the killings is not related to the Ripper but to the aftermath of a particularly brutal shoot-out involving crooked cops.

The last film, 1983, focuses on Maurice Jobson, a policeman featured only in the background of the previous two instalments, who is now deeply regretful of his role in past police abuses. The lives of Jobson, BJ, and a washed up lawyer whose father was himself an infamous member of West Yorkshire’s finest, all collide towards the series’ conclusion.

The three films work on virtually every level I can think of.

The attention to period detail is meticulous. Supplementing this, each film has a distinctive look due to each being shot using different techniques. The first one is on grainy 16mm, giving it a boxed in, shadowy feeling, which gradually gets lighter with each installment.

There are some fine performances, many of them from among the cast of actors only familiar to Australian viewers as the mainstays of the UK police procedurals that dominate our TV screens every Friday and Saturday night. These include Warren Clarke (Andy Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe) and Jim Carter who are chilling as corrupt senior police, and Paddy Considine as Assistant Chief Constable Hunter. Sean Bean is also excellent as the repellent Dawson.

Much of the power of all three films flows from their depiction of the bleak coal mining towns of the north of England. The characters traverse a landscape of rundown housing estates in the shadow of massive power plants, endless rain and sullen workingmen’s clubs.

It feels like an alien country and the locals are merciless in enforcing their own code of conduct. In one particularly memorable scene towards the end of 1974, Dunford, northern born but having only recently returned from a stint working as a journalist further south, is tortured by corrupt cops. Beaten and bloody he is thrown into the back of a van. One of the cops flings open the rear door to reveal a two lane black top in the middle of an endless flat stretch of rain beaten nowhere. “See this?” the cop says. “This is the north and we do what we want.”

It works so well, because Peace was West Yorkshire born and raised. Obsessed by the Ripper case as a boy, he has recalled wagging school to go rubber necking outside the court when the real Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was finally apprehended in 1983.

Peace’s northern England is terrorised first by a mass murderer, second by the police who are supposed to protect it, and finally by conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her quest to smash the miners’ union.

The Red Riding Trilogy is available in dvd by Studio Canal and Madman

A version of this review first appeared in Crime Factory, May-June 2010