FOUR GREAT BOSTON CRIME FILMS (and one not-so)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
What can I say about this film and the novel that it’s based on? Both are masterpieces and also both are the favorite book and movie of Anthony Bourdain, if that sort of thing means anything to you.
George V. Higgins was a master of dialogue, with Elmore Leonard running a close second in the history of crime fiction. Feel free to disagree. No one will judge you for being wrong. The qualifier in my opinion was that Higgins writes cleanly in the vernacular of my people—and if any of you have been to Boston, you know that’s no mean feat after you have one conversation with a resident of Quincy.
Published in 1972, the book offers a stark depiction of the title character’s life as he desperately tries to avoid a jail sentence by snitching for the FBI while still running guns to a gang of bank robbers. The film, directed by Peter Yates and released in 1973, features Robert Mitchum in perhaps his greatest late-career role as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, of which Roger Ebert wrote, “Eddie Coyle is made for (Mitchum) —a weary middle-aged man, but tough and proud; a man who has been hurt too often in life not to respect pain; a man who will take chances to protect his own territory.”
The film offered a bleak and painfully realistic alternative to the relative glamorization of the mob that was The Godfather, which had captured the imaginations of filmgoers only a year earlier.
FUN FACT: Another Higgins novel (Cogan’s Trade) was brilliantly adapted in 2012 by Andrew Dominik, starring Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Scoots McNairy. For some idiotic reason, the title of the film is Killing Them Softly. Scoots McNairy provides one of the best and most consistent Boston accents in film history…until the final act, where he butchers the pronunciation of the city of Haverhill.
It’s pronounced HAV-uh-rill.
Nice try, Scoots.
The Brinks Job
Directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist), this 1978 film is based upon the real 1950 Boston Brinks robbery, which netted the thieves almost three million dollars, and was at the time, the largest robbery in American history.
Closer to comedy than noir, Peter Falk stars as Tony Pino, a small-time crook who realizes that the Brinks Security company relies on its reputation rather than reality in order to remain impregnable in the public eye. And in that, he sees an opportunity and organizes a robbery with Jazz Maffie (Paul Sorvino), his idiot brother-in law Vinnie (Allen Garfield), and the hilariously unhinged WWII veteran, Specs O’Keefe (Warren Oates).
In one of the classic moments of the film, Tony’s wife, Mary (Gena Rowlands), makes a pair of detectives a friendly dinner, as they have all become so well acquainted with each other from years of popping by to investigate Tony for every crime in the area.
FUN FACT: Fifteen reels of film were robbed at gunpoint from the set. The bad news for the thieves was, all of the reels contained only dailies and outtakes. The demanded $600,000 ransom was never paid, and Friedkin reportedly told the robbers during the ransom call, “Get a projector and enjoy them. They’re all yours.”
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River earned Sean Penn the Academy Award for Best Actor, Tim Robbins the award for Best Supporting Actor, and nominations for Best Picture of the Year and Best Director (Clint Eastwood).
Jimmy Marcus (Penn), Dave Boyle (Robbins), and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) are three lifelong friends who share a childhood trauma when Dave is abducted off the streets of Boston. Dave escapes his captors but is never quite the same, and all three boys grow into three very different men—with Jimmy trying to run the straight and narrow after years of living as a criminal, Sean now a cop, and Dave just continuing to try to live with what happened to him all those years ago.
When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered and Dave is suspected of the crime, all three men find themselves on a collision course with not only each other, but with their past. One of the first films shot nearly entirely in Boston (rather than a Vancouver proxy or a Hollywood sound stage), the film did a lot to open up the idea of Boston as a cinematic setting, with Eastwood’s brilliant direction and lush cinematography by Tom Stern, who made Boston more beautiful on film than had ever been presented before, warts and all.
FUN FACT (and shameless plug): Dennis Lehane was in a pool league at The Rathskeller—the bar that I not only worked the door at, but which (renamed the Cellar) serves as the central location for the bouncers Boo and Junior in my own novels, The Hard Bounce and Rough Trade.
A lot of people hate Ben Affleck for one reason or another. Is his acting the best? Nope. I think he’s sometimes terrible, but more often than not passable—if not pretty good. What no one can disparage is his brilliance as a director. He displayed early signs of his directorial deftness with his debut film Gone Baby Gone, but really established where his wheelhouse was with the 2010 adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves.
Doug MacRay (Affleck) and James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner—Academy Award nominee for the role) are lifetime friends and residents of the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, or just The Town for short. They also like to rob banks and are very, very good at it.
After a robbery, they take manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage as insurance for their getaway, then release her unharmed. When Doug realizes that Claire lives in their neighborhood, he gains her trust to find out what she not only knows, but what she has told the police. Trust turns to love and it all goes to hell, of course. Despite butchering and “Hollywood-izing” the ending from the novel, the film is held together not only by the dangerous performance by Renner, but also the terrifying (and sadly, final) performance by Pete Postlethwaite as local crime lord Fergie Colm.
Affleck builds upon the use of local landmarks (there’s a shootout at Fenway Pahk! FENWAY FRIGGIN’ PAHK!), but also perfectly captures the tone of Boston’s disenfranchised residents who are feeling the push of gentrification and so-called progress as they see the neighborhoods they’ve known all their lives and the lives of their fathers turning into Yuppie paradises with the corporate money that their blue collars will never achieve for themselves.
FUN FACT: The film’s premiere was held in Fenway Park. I don’t know if this is fun or not, but as a lifetime Sox fan, it is at least wicked awesome.
This is not a Boston movie. Let’s just start there. It is a remake of a much superior Chinese film titled Infernal Affairs. Sure, many of the performances are great, but Jack Nicholson’s performance in the middle of the DiCaprio and Damon sandwich is just awful. When he decides to try a Boston accent—which he only does on maybe 30 percent of his lines—he sounds like the Lucky Charms leprechaun after suffering a traumatic burn to his tongue.
And the rat at the end. COME ON!
This is not a great Boston movie. It is not a great movie at all. It’s not even a very good movie. Sure, Scorsese won Best Director, but you know damned well that they gave that as an apology for the half-dozen or so films that he should have won the Oscar for. And before you mention that the film won Best Picture, a feat that none of the aforementioned films accomplished, just remember that Crash also won Best Picture, and that movie is a cinematic dumpster fire.
FUN FACT: There are no fun facts to be had regarding this film, just sadness. And despair.
Todd Robinson is the creator of the multi-award-winning crime fiction magazine Thuglit. His short fiction has appeared in Blood and Tacos, Plots With Guns, Needle Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Pulp Pusher, Grift, Demolition Magazine, CrimeFactory, and Strange, Weird, and Wonderful. His writing has been nominated for a Derringer Award, short-listed for Best American Mystery Stories, and selected for Writer’s Digest’s Year’s Best Writing 2003, and it won the inaugural Bullet Award in June 2011. His first novel featuring Boo and Junior, The Hard Bounce, was nominated for the Anthony Award. His new Boo and Junior novel, Rough Trade, is available now from Polis Books. He lives in Queens, New York.