Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why "Underworld, U.S.A." is better than "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (the movie)

My recent observation on Facebook about two crime movies turned into a symposium on movies, books, style, history, and other interesting subjects with comments from some of the sharpest crime fiction minds I know. The movies were Underworld, U.S.A. and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I called the former superior because it wastes fewer words. Here are highlights of what ensued:

Michael Carlson attributed my observation to the writing style of the novel on which Eddie Coyle was based. "That's [George V. ] Higgins," he wrote. "There's more words, but I wouldn't call them wasted."  Fair point, except that the movie isn't Higgins, or at least not just Higgins. It's also Peter Yates, who directed the movie, and Robert Mitchum, who starred. among others.

Mike Dennis, commenting in his Don Donovan persona, called the movie version of Eddie Coyle "IMHO, one of the greatest noirs of all time ... without question, Robert Mitchum's finest hour." He's half-right. Mitchum does what words on a page cannot: His physical eloquence and facial expressions alone make the character. As good as the rest of the movie is, nothing else in it comes close to doing what movies alone can do.  The rest of the movie is at best a good adaptation of a good or great or seminal crime novel.

Underworld, U.S.A., on the other hand, is full of cinematic touches: shots lingering on nervous eyes, atmospheric lighting, and such. Scott Adlerberg, a novelist who lectures regularly on movies, understood this when he wrote:
"I like the Eddie Coyle film, but Underworld, U.S.A. is definitely the better film, in my view. But Sam Fuller is indeed a great director, one of the best crime/action directors of them all, and solid as Peter Yates is, he's no Fuller when it comes to packing a cinematic punch. Still, those two movies are hard to compare because their styles are so different. Fuller's the master of pulpy tabloid style, very kinetic crime stories, and Eddie Coyle is, as said here, the flip side, to all that."
I take Scott's comment as supporting my position for two reasons: One is that he speaks more knowledgeably than I can about Samuel Fuller's superiority as a director. The other is that with the exception of Scott's comments and, to a lesser extent, Mike Dennis/Don Donovan's, the commenters replied to my (perceived) slight of Eddie Coyle the movie by defending Eddie Coyle the book. What does that tell you about the movie?

And that gets to my problem with Higgins and, to a lesser extent, Elmore Leonard. I love any number of crime writers who swear allegiance to Higgins and Leonard -- Charlie Stella, Garbhan Downey, John McFetridge, and Declan Burke, to name a few -- but I've never warmed to Higgins' crime novels, and I don't know why.   Have I grown so accustomed to working-stiff gangsters who can crack a joke without necessarily knowing they're being funny that I fail to appreciate the writer who created the type? Has Higgins perhaps not aged as well as he night have? Your thoughts on the matter are welcome.

In the meantime, here's some of what Stella posted on Facebook:
"You know where I stand on Higgins (you fucking communist!) :) but to be fair, there are a number of his other works I had (to quote William Buckley discussing Atlas Shrugged) “to flog myself” to finish (and some never were finished). That said (you fucking communist!), I’ll have to read the other author you mentioned. The musings on the Boston common, if I’m thinking about the same scene, I’m pretty sure is Dillon (not Doyle) … I read a bio on Higgins last summer (I think) … the guy had issues, no doubt, and he probably would’ve hated me and my politics, but I remain a sycophant to his dialogue and ability to portray what the real world of organized crime was like (very different from the horseshit in The Godfather, for instance)."
And here's what he has to see about Higgins, in a guest post at The Rap Sheet .

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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16 Comments:

Blogger Charlieopera said...

Rozovsky, you shit stirrer, you. :)

I had issues with that silly movie you and Scott forced me to watch (Underworld USA?) ... what kind of a title is that anyway? As you know, I updated my disdain for same as I watched it (it's usually how I write, whether on FB or watching a movie, even one as clichéd as Underwater This Day (or whatever it's called). It could be I had to pay $3.99 to watch the jumble of clichéd nonsense, but Pay or Die remains my favorite old time movie. Eddie Coyle, the movie, I also prefer to Waterbabies, DNA (or whatever it's called). Now I have to eat a dozen bagels, so excuse me until later. Great post, by the way, you shit stirrer.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Enjoy the bagels, and thanks for the kind words.

I think you hit on something with that observation about cliched nonsense. I think the movie is a marvelous send-up, as if Fuller wanted to see how many Hollywood gangster movie cliches he could cram into a movie and still mske ot dark, visually interesting, even sexy.

i look forward to Pay or Die.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Scott is right that it's difficult to compare two such different movies. The only reason I wrote about them together is that I happened to watch them back to back.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Dana King said...

When I think of Eddie Coyle, the movie, I think of how dreary it is, and how Yates doesn’t use any directorial legerdemain to make his point. Eddie lives a bleak life in which the only hope is false. Yates doesn’t dress that up, nor does he try any emotional manipulation. Here’s Eddie. Take him or leave him. That’s the point of the movie. (And of the book, which is another reason I like the movie so much. It captures the essence of the book.) It’s also my favorite Mitchum performance, though the acting is superior across the board. Peter Boyle and Richard Jordan also stand out. (If you get a chance to watch it with Yates’s commentary track, do so. The Beloved Spouse and I watched the movie a year or so ago, then planned to watch just a few minutes of the commentary only to end up watching the whole things again.)

I agree with Charlie about Higgins’s writing in general. Eddie Coyle is a masterpiece, in my opinion one of the three greatest American crime books. (Along with The Maltese Falcon and American Tabloid.) Higgins as a whole is uneven, though. Cogan’s Trade is very good. The Digger’s Game is good until the end, when I put the book down and thought, “So what?” I read two others many years ago. (The titles escape me.) One I thought was as good as Cogan’s Trade; the other was a task to finish. On balance, that’s okay. I’m perfectly content to re-read Eddie Coyle every few years.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Charlieopera said...

I'm with Dana on American Tabloid, probably my 2nd favorite ... and The Maltese Falcon ain't no slouch either ... interesting is how both Higgins and Ellroy have left me in similar boats regarding their other works. I couldn't read the Cold Six Thousand with a gun to my head. That or White Jazz(?) ... when I was in California, a guy I met in a bookstore said he felt the same way until he heard Ellroy reading from Cold Six. He said once he heard the right cadence, he loved it. So there's that.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Dana King said...

White Jazz is next on my Ellroy list, probably later this year. The Cold Six Thousand was my first Ellroy, which was my mistake. After I finish the LA Quartet I’ll go through the trilogy in order and see if that makes a difference. (If nothing else it will give me an excuse to re-read American Tabloid.)

January 11, 2017  
Anonymous Don Donovan said...

While we're on Ellroy, I'll weigh in. AMERICAN TABLOID is far and away his greatest, riding the cusp between straight narrative and the bebop cadence of some of his later work, while at the same time telling an incredibly compelling story. Or as he so brilliantly said in his prologue, "It's time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time."

Having said that, THE COLD SIX THOUSAND was my biggest disappointment. After AMERICAN TABLOID, I couldn't wait for the followup, so when COLD 6K came out, I rushed to buy it. The deeper into it I got, the less involved I became, until (and this is the honest truth, I swear) when I got to a point seven pages from the end, I put it down. Ellroy lovers will find his redemption in PERFIDIA, however, a book I highly recommend, but only after you read the LA Quartet and the Underworld USA Trilogy (preferably in order).

Back to the whole gangster movie / FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE / UNDERWORLD USA / PAY OR DIE discussion:

I haven't seen PAY OR DIE in decades, so I'll have to see it again before saying anything about it. From a strictly "gangster-movie" point of view, however, I would have to place WHITE HEAT (1949) near the top of my list. Anyone who's seen the movie can figure out the reasons why, and I would add that Margaret Wycherly's performance as Ma Jarrett ranks right up there with the scariest women in cinema history.

And I would be remiss if I didn't include THE ASPHALT JUNGLE in that category, a film which expertly straddles the gangster movie/film noir gap. It remains riveting to this day, 67 years later. I would, IMHO, say it was better than the novel by WR Burnett, but others may think differently.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll reply at greater length later. For now I'll say that I'm with you all on Hammett and American Tabloid, which makes my relative indifference to Eddie Coyle all the more mysterious, at least to me.

Dana: One could argue that the Eddie Coyle movie's apparent lack of emotional manipulation is itself a form of emotional manipulation, the movie making plain the sympathy it expects us to feel for this put- upon working guy.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Dana King said...

So you're saying the lack of emotional manipulation is itself emotional manipulation? That's too meta for me.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's not that complicated, really. It just means that Peter Yates and the movie's producers presumably had an idea about how they wanted to tell their story: Focus on unadorned settings, make the characters' lives unglamorous, and such. Implicit (and maybe explicit) in their decisions was the sort of reactions they hoped to produce in viewers: that Eddie and the rest were just regular working guys, despite their often-glamorized line of work.

Sam Fuller decides that a tight close-up on a character's darting eyes fits the way he wants to tell a story. Peter Yates decides that shooting a scene in an unadorned working- or middle-class house fits his way. Why does one of these constitute emotional manipulation and the other not?

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Dana King said...

I never said Fuller did; I haven't seen his film. Yates's understated approach doesn't attempt to make the audience feel one way or the other. Yes, Eddie has a shitty life, but the movie shows most of that's on him. He makes bad choices. The viewer can sympathize or figure he got what's coming to him. That Eddie comes off as sympathetically as he does is more a reflection of Mitchum's performance than of Yates's direction.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't have the philosophical and aesthetic vocabulary to give this question the scrutiny it deserves. I just have trouble with concepts such as Yates' lack of "directorial legerdemain." I would also disagree with the suggestion that Yates does not try to make the audience feel one way or the other. He may not (for the sake of argument) ask the audience to decide whether or not Eddie deserves what he gets. But he sure as hell does want the audience to feel a certain sympathy for him. That's he way he chose to tell his story, and he did a good job of it. I would argue that that is no less "directorial legerdemain" than Fuller's dark shadows, moody street scenes, tight close-ups, and rich black and white palette.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Charlieopera said...

In the end, any work of fiction has to ring true for me. Undeniable Waterbabies, DNA (or whatever it’s called) held none for me. Now, to be fair, I don’t take enough notice of the close-ups of eyes, nervous ticks, etc., and that’s my bad. Still, the storyline itself has to have some credibility for me to engage. We know early on how Robertson’s character will get what he wants, whether he dies or not. The “super mobsters” (i.e., those who are so well healed and street smart, etc.) fall like dominoes to some campy and pretty unbelievable (to me) traps. I thought Gus(?) at least showed what I know to be true about mobsters across the board (and they were facial expressions, so good on the team and/or the actor) … the jealousy factor. Like many corporate environments, getting one’s nose closer to the boss’s ass is imperative to the working stiff mobster. Gus showed jealousy a few times, blatant suspicion of Robertson. That was good, I thought. Real, at least. Eddie Coyle, which follows the book’s plotline very closely, was as real as the book portrayal. And the dankness of Coyle’s world is pretty much an exact match, although today it’s probably even worse because of all the deal-makers still walking the streets already tight with law enforcement. Eddie Coyle the movie was loaded with “what is.” Underworld, USA (now I got it!) showed very little of that to me. But it’s all good, brothers and sisters.

January 11, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

3 am is not a good time to try answering such a well-considered comment, but I think you got some things right about "Underworld USA." "Gus" was terrific, for one thing, and thevactor did a fine job.

This was my first Samuel Fullef movie, and I don't know much about his career. But I think it's safe to say that naturalism of the Eddie Coyle kind wax not foremost in his mind when he made this movie.

January 12, 2017  
Blogger Elgin Bleecker said...

Peter – Looks like you kicked a hornets’ nest with this one. Who would have thought it could cause this much debate.
That said, I will dive into it and say it is almost impossible to compare the two films.
Peter Yates was an able director who made a lot of different kinds of movies from other people’s stories. They were always smooth, but not always good. Yet he did direct two great films, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, and BULLITT.
Sam Fuller wrote and directed films that were of personal interest to him. A WWII vet himself, I think his war pictures are his best: THE BIG RED ONE, FIXED BAYONETS, and THE STEEL HELMET. And, I will add the low-budget, post-war VERBOTEN. I also like his newspaper stories like PARK ROW. But his pulpier pictures, like THE NAKED KISS and UNDERWORLD USA, leave me cold. And I realize that puts me out in the cold as far as his fans go.

January 15, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. You're right that it's nearly impossible to compare the two movies. I discuss them together only because of the coincidence of my having seen the two around the same time. But their very differences forced me to think about the way the directors chose to tell their stories and the different ways movies can appeal to viewers, among other matters. I'll keep your comments in mind as I watch more Fuller.

January 15, 2017  

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