1000 Movies to Own #4: Only Lovers Left Alive

In a modern era of film making drowning in vampire stories, there are a very few standouts. Pieces of creative fiction that not only play to the genre’s longstanding tropes and symbolism, but that enhance those ideas and tell their own story with imagination. Only Lovers Left Alive is one of those films.

It’s not a movie for horror buffs or even one that’s particularly accessible, as it frames itself more as ‘slice of life’ than any meaningful narrative. However, once you accept that that Adam and Eve – played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton respectively – are going to be drifting through the movie as it weaves in and out of their night life, rather than trying to invest you in any single overwhelming core conflict (there are several minor ones), the whole experience becomes a beautifully relaxing neo-gothic romance.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch – of Dead Man and Down by Law fame, among others – (and adapted by Marion Bessay) the 2013 film, while carried easily by Swinton and Hiddleston, also features John Hurt & Anton Yelchin in strong supporting roles. Mia Wasikowska rounds out a cast that seems to really enjoy inhabiting the world Jarmusch has created for them. And that’s what this movie is for. It’s a film made for tone and trappings. Watching a bunch of good actors build a picture of the modern, urban vampire.

Further Watching:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Thirst (2009)
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Let the Right One In (2008)

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1000 Movies to Own #3: The Hit

It’s tough to even know where to begin with 1984’s the Hit. One part classic British gangster film, one part road trip, with a splash of philosophical probing thrown across it. All of which swirl together to create a film that stands far apart in an overcrowded field of crime dramas. The narrative focuses on small-time gangster Willie Parker, played by Terence Stamp, living under witness protection in Spain, after providing key testimony against his mob bosses back in England. 10 years after sending his brothers-in-crime up the river, he finds himself facing a pair of hit men sent to even the score.

But Parker isn’t particularly disturbed by the idea of meeting his maker, especially since he assumes he’ll get one last chance to face the men he ratted on (now holed up in France). And what ensues is a strangely serene road trip through the Spanish countryside, punctuated by violence, and dogged by the footsteps of the Spanish police force.

The second theater-released feature film of noted British director Stephen Frears – most famous for the Queen, High Fidelity, and Dangerous Liaisons – the Hit is a near-perfect marriage of style and substance. Written by novelist Peter Prince, it not only features Stamp, but the great – and sadly recently deceased – John Hurt, just ahead of his role in 1984. Tim Roth makes his feature debut, heading toward what became a highly successful Hollywood career. Add in veteran Spanish actor Fernando Rey and the beautiful Laura del Sol in supporting roles and it’s an outstandingly strong small cast.

More than anything, the Hit is about one man attempting to come to grips with his death, and the very specific world view and philosophy he builds in order to do so. It’s not always the most sensible crime thriller, opportunities for escape come and go, the hit men’s mission moves from crystal clear to cloudy. But the performances, the setting, and the style are something that shouldn’t be missed.

Further Watching:
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
One False Move (1992)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Road Games (1981)
The Grifters (1990)

1000 Movies to Own #2: Elevator to the Gallows

I’m not always the biggest fan of French New Wave cinema, especially when it gets into its more avant garde machinations. But, films like 1958’s Elevator to the Gallows are a standing reminder that for every bit of artsy, formless film-making, there are really meaty flicks to sink your teeth into. The plot centers around Maurice Ronet – just a couple years before his role in Purple Noon – as Julien Tavernier, a former special forces soldier, turned oil company man who hatches a plot to kill his boss and run off with the boss’ wife. Simples.

Everything goes to plan until, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, Tavernier becomes trapped in his office building’s elevator, between floors, overnight. At the same time, his newly widowed mistress is out searching for him, and a pair of restless teenagers decide to steal his car for their own evening of fun. As the police investigate and the noose tightens, questions mount: Will Tavernier be caught and charged? For which crime? Or can he escape altogether?

The film – based on the Noël Calef novel of the same name – marks the feature debut of famed French filmmaker Louis Malle, who would go on to make notable American pictures like My Dinner with Andre and Atlantic City, as well as critically beloved films like Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants. The movie also helped cement the stardom of its leading actress, Jeanne Moreau, who would become a staple of New Wave cinema as well as a long standing French cinematic icon.

Between Moreau and Ronet – and helped greatly by Lino Ventura in a supporting role – the film features a fantastic cast that adds great depth to twisty crime thriller. The camerawork and sets vary between relatively uninteresting and fantastically moody, but are bolstered across the board by a wonderful jazz score from Miles Davis. The combination of all of this is a fantastic film filled with twists and turns about a relatively simple murder gone entirely haywire.

FURTHER WATCHING:
Purple Noon (1960)
Bob the Gambler (1956)
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Le Samourai (1967)
Rififi (1955)

1000 Movies to Own #1: The Lineup

The Lineup debuted in 1958 and stars Eli Wallach (Dancer) alongside Robert Keith (Julian) as a hitman duo sent to San Francisco to retrieve packages of heroin stuffed inside ornamental dolls – brought into the country by unsuspecting tourists returning from vacation in China. Dancer and Julian dispatch their unknowing drug mules, but things go awry when a little girl finds one of the packages in her doll and accidentally destroys it before they can find her. The missing dope throws everyone’s plans off, putting their shipment short and putting them on the outs with their unsympathetic mafia bosses.

The movie is directed by Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame – as well as 1964s the Killers and a number of other notable Clint Eastwood vehicles. The screenplay was written by Sterling Silliphant, who got his most notable screen credit for his treatment of In the Heat of the Night along with a wide variety of other film and television writing work.

Apparently the Lineup was intended as a spin-off from a 1950s police procedural TV show of the same name, but Siegel’s interest in focusing on the hitmen as the principal characters and the casting of Eli Wallach really make what could be seen as a routine cat & mouse thriller something much more engaging. The film marked Wallach’s second cinematic role of his long career, after working principally in television.

It’s not notable for any awards it won or great place it holds in cinematic history, but at just an hour and twenty six minutes, it’s a tight little crime movie that neither wastes time nor momentum as tension mounts on all sides of its central characters.

FURTHER WATCHING
Blast of Silence (1961)
The Killers (1964)
Murder by Contract (1958)
Charley Varrick (1973)
Nightfall (1956)

Death at 24 FPS #1 – The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Just how unimportant can a main character be, and still be the main character? It’s a subtext I find unavoidable as I approach Peter Yates’ the Friends of Eddie Coyle. At his core, Coyle is kind of a bum, neither steering the ship in his underworld lifestyle, nor making the scores. In any other story he’s one of those nameless, faceless men in the middle, whose job it is inevitably to help make sure more important people get what they need when they need it. He’s ‘Mobster no. 2’ in a half a hundred credit rolls. But this is a movie all about him; about the middle man, the go-between. A backstage pass to the life of a nobody hood.

“In the miserable economy of power in Boston’s rumpled gray underworld,” writes author and filmmaker Kent Jones in his essay They Were Expendable, “Eddie and his ‘friends’ are all expendable, and the ones left standing play every side against the middle, their white-knuckle terror carefully concealed under several layers of nonchalance and resignation.”

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Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle

And then he dies. Of course he does, or I wouldn’t be writing this. He has to die. And it’s because Eddie Coyle is the character he is – and was played by the man that was Robert Mitchum – that he and his death became the first entry in this series.

“Eddie Coyle is a small-time loser at the end of his rope,” screenwriter Paul Monash tells Rolling Stone in the essay Robert Mitchum: The Last of the Celluloid Desperados, “but the marvelous thing about Mitchum is that he doesn’t play him as a groveling, uncourageous man. He imparts to the role a quiet dignity the character in the book lacked, I think. Mitchum radiates a genuine presence. Above all, you can say about Mitchum that he is.”

Coyle does something that few other characters like him do: he relates. Much like Rosemary in Rosemary’s baby does everything ‘right’ – calls the police, tries to escape, all the ‘what would I do’ steps that make her terror that much more believable – Coyle plays his problems down the line, and with a simplicity that feels refreshingly natural. With his court date upcoming on a truck-jacking charge, he tries to feed the cops just enough info to stay out of jail. He makes his moves only when forced, and his solutions seem to be the best available to him.

He’s a character without options and without the clichéd genre-born ability to gun his way out of trouble. He’s a man working whatever angle he can to stay out of prison. That makes his death something almost transcendent among a genre full of roles we mark down as body count or the wrong end of karmic justice. I don’t feel for him because he’s a simpering patsy like Fredo, or any number of wrong place, wrong time supporting cast members through the ages. Coyle earns empathy because he’s the reality.

This man is me if I ended up in a life of crime. Not running things at the top or robbing banks at the bottom. Just in the middle trying to make all the pieces fit, trying not to be stupid, trying not to get caught. When he dies as the result of the slow and unenviable unfolding of events that make me sure he will die, I know that I’d die too.

IN WRITING

Coyle’s death comes from the mind of former Assistant United States Attorney George V. Higgins. A lawyer, journalist, and professor who published his first novel after years working to fight organized crime in and around Boston. It was a background that made him especially well suited to write stories that delved deep into the mob underworld. And his first book, the Friends of Eddie Coyle, was his most notable success. In 2012, Higgins’ third story, Cogan’s Trade, was adapted into the Brad Pitt vehicle, Killing them Softly. But, those are the only two of his 27 books to make it to the big screen.

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And while Killing Them Softly underwent its fair share of re-writing and updating from its source material, the Friends of Eddie Coyle is very much a visual recreation of Higgins’ base text. Yates, Monash, Mitchum and the rest play important roles in bringing it to life, but often the most pivotal of those roles seems to have been to stay out of the author’s way. The dialogue-heavy book reads more like a screenplay from the outset, with descriptions, conversations, and entire scenes lifted part and parcel for the eventual film.

“The screenplay is very faithful to George Higgins’s novel,” recalls Monash, “which I consider a work of true brilliancy. My main task in writing the screenplay consisted of organizing the material already at hand. The dialogue in the book, which the critics praised so lavishly, is the dialogue in the film.”

In Higgins’ own words then, this is how Eddie Coyle died:

“When the Ford was alone on the road, Dillon brought the revolver up and held it an inch behind Coyle’s head, the muzzle pointing at the base of the skull behind the left ear. Dillon drew the hammer back. The first shot went in nicely. Dillon continued firing, double-action. The revolver clicked on a spent round at last. Coyle lay thrust up against the frame between the doors of the Ford. The speedometer read eighty-five.”

IN REALITY

The film and the novel that inspired it are steeped in the culture of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, notorious for producing famed mafia member Whitey Bulger and a laundry list of violent criminal undertakings. To his credit – and perhaps somewhat foolishly – Robert Mitchum sought out local figures in this highly active mafia underworld to prepare for the part.

Mitchum met with -and brought onto the set of the film as various crew -notable mafioso Howie Winter and his Teamsters union. Winter was introduced to Mitchum by character actor Alex Rocco, once known as Alexander Petricone (aka ‘Bobo’) from his days as a Winter Hill mafia member. Word is that Mitchum wanted to meet Bulger himself, but was warned against it.

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Winter Hill mafia member Howie Winter

“He warns Peter Yates that I’m associating with known criminals,” Mitchum says of author George Higgins’ warnings against the actors new friends, “warns him that I’m going to get busted or tainted or something. Well, fuck, there’s hardly anyone you can talk to in Boston without — you know…”

Potentially owing to that kind of dedicated study – and perhaps more firmly to Higgins’ own experiences working against such figures – there are clear parallels between the characters in Friends of Eddie Coyle and the genuine mafia syndicates of the time. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr points out connections he recognized, in a 2011 editorial about the film:

“When a killer openly threatens to kill you, it concentrates one’s mind wonderfully, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson,” Carr explains, talking of his own interactions with the Bulger family. “And as I studied Whitey, it dawned on me just how much of Whitey’s career paralleled that of Eddie Coyle’s fictional killer, Dillon.”

As Carr notes: Bulger ran a bar under someone else’s name, he informed for the FBI, and he was a contract killer for the mob. All bold similarities to Higgins’ character both on paper and on screen.

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William ‘Billy’ O’Brien, allegedly killed by Bulger in a mob hit.

“Re-reading the novel,” Carr continues, “I even thought I recognized the prototype for Eddie Coyle–a ham-and-egger named Billy O’Brien. He’d been in one of Whitey’s early bank-robbing gangs, got paroled, and was whacked shortly after being lugged by the State Police for a truck hijacking.”

O’Brien was in fact killed a year after Higgins’s book was published, the same year the feature film was released. Bulger himself didn’t quite rise to notoriety as a major underworld player until after the novel was written. And when Carr brought these specific similarities to Higgins, he dismissed them as direct sources for his work.

But, that only shows how ensconced in the real world the author’s novel was. Whether on screen or on paper, Coyle is the reflection of a time and place and people, every bit as much as he is the creative brainchild of an author, dedication of an actor, or management of a director.

ON FILM

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released on June 26th, 1973, starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, and Steven Keats. It was directed by Peter Yates, notable for the Steve McQueen action thriller Bullitt and the Albert Finney drama the Dresser among more than two-dozen other projects.

While the film is startlingly faithful to the book, it  differs slightly here and there. As the scene of Coyle’s death approaches, the killers – Dillon and a teenage youth – take him to a hockey game; Bruins vs. Blackhawks for the film, instead of Bruins vs. Rangers. There’s a little less dialogue between Dillon and his partner as they prepare for and carry out their hit. Nothing important, only small things. Most notably, the Dillon on film only fires one shot to kill Coyle, rather than the nine scripted.

I bring these minor changes up not to compare and contrast – as is too often the course when looking at a novel as it moves to the screen – but to emphasize just how married these two works of art really are. It’s harder to point out the ways the text and film are different than it is to point out all the ways in which they mirror one another. And as they mirror one another, they mirror the real world around them. They mirror people who live and die in organized crime.

On that note, this is the death of Eddie Coyle – a nobody hood, out among friends, meeting a swift and unavoidable end.