Posted by Susan Doll on May 25, 2015
Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as long-time Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, opens in theaters this fall. I am excited to see the film not only because of Depp but also because I am a fan of the director, Scott Cooper, whose Out of the Furnace was one of my favorite movies of 2013. Two years ago, the real-life Bulger was convicted of 32 counts of racketeering and murder. He had been a fixture in Boston’s underworld from the 1970s to the 1990s, rising to power with the help of corrupt FBI agents. He provided the FBI with information about a rival crime family while he built up his own criminal empire. If the story sounds familiar, it was fictionalized in Martin Scorsese’s gangster saga The Departed in 2006.
My favorite Boston crime saga, however, was released in 1973, when the real-life Bulger was just beginning his rise to power. The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes place on the fringes of Boston’s underworld, and director Peter Yates’s decision to shoot in a naturalistic style captures the gritty milieu of the Irish mob’s territory. Victor Kemper’s unglamorous depiction of Boston’s mean streets prefigures the documentary-like style he used for Dog Day Afternoon two years later. According to Kemper, the schedule was so tight on The Friends of Eddie Coyle that they seldom spent more than one day in one location. It was a challenge to shoot so quickly, but, he noted that the lack of finessing gave the film a spontaneity, adding to Yates’s realistic style.
I confess that the visual style and documentary flavor are not the reasons I like this film so much. The film stars Robert Mitchum, my favorite actor of all time, in the title role. Mitchum gives one of the best performances of his career as aging, small-time gunrunner Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, who is barely making ends meet as he works on the fringes of the underworld. His situation deteriorates when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.
The film was based on a novel by George V. Higgins, an assistant U.S. district attorney. The dialogue-driven book offered a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of common criminals, which Yates and screenwriter Paul Monash worked hard to accurately recreate on the big screen. Moody, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum knew all too well.
Mitchum appears for only a quarter of the movie, but the film’s reputation rests on his performance. He is ably supported by a cast of young character actors whose approach to their craft was more method than movie star. Mitchum—a personality actor with a distinct star image—holds his own against Richard Jordan, Peter Boyle, Joe Santos, and Jack Kehoe. Director Peter Yates understood Robert Mitchum’s star image and used it to construct the character of Eddie Coyle, set the tone of the film, and capture the social and cultural disillusionment of the early 1970s. Mitchum’s tough guy persona, enhanced by stories of his hard knocks life, had evolved through his roles in film noir. By the 1970s, that toughness was colored by cynicism and pessimism, and his world-weary persona seemed to sum up the younger generation’s disillusionment with an America that had brought us Vietnam, decaying inner cities, accelerating crime rates, and political corruption. To his credit Mitchum not only survived as a star in this grittier era of Hollywood filmmaking, he thrived there.
As it turns out, Whitey Bulger also figures into The Friends of Eddie Coyle, albeit indirectly. Mitchum—being Mitchum—supposedly hung out with members of Bulger’s crew. Claiming he was soaking up the atmosphere to play his character, the star went out drinking with his driver, a few Teamsters, and other locals. The Teamsters’ bar buddies included a few mob members who were part of the Winter Hill Gang with whom Bulger was connected. Supposedly, Mitchum grew so close to the “bad guys” that Higgins became concerned that he knew too much and might be targeted, or that there might be repercussions to the production.
In an even more bizarre twist, a character actor named Alex Rocco was cast in a secondary role in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Rocco is best known as gangster Moe Green in The Godfather, a memorable character because he is shot through the eye in the final sequence. Born Alexander Petricone, Jr., the actor began adulthood in Boston as a small-time hood in the Winter Hill Gang. As the story goes, over Labor Day weekend in 1961, he showed up at a party attended by members of various gangs. A rival gang member put the moves on Rocco’s girl, prompting retaliations that escalated into violence among Boston’s underworld element. Eventually, a mob war broke out among the city’s Irish and Italian gangs. During the height of the violence, Rocco fled Boston, lost weight, changed his name, and ended up in Hollywood.
Now, that would make an interesting movie—but no one would believe it.
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