Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973); The Long Good Friday (1980); American Gangster (2007)

The taglines on the original movie poster say it all.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Director: Peter Yates

A curious movie which oozes despair and fatalism like only 1970s movies can.

Acting legend Robert Mitchum, no stranger to great noir films, plays Eddie Coyle, a mafia middle-man of the lowest-rent variety. Coyle dabbles steadily enough in the purchase and exchange of guns, but he barely manages to eke out a meager existence by which he lives in an uninspiring home with his wife and three children. Eddie is not even particularly great at what he does. As penance for flubbing a job earlier in life, he had his fingers broken in a drawer, earning the nickname "Eddie Fingers". As this movie begins, he has already been collared for illegally transporting stolen goods, and is only free on bail until he can be tried and locked away. That is, unless he turns evidence on some of his more powerful bosses.

The movie isn't always as tight as it could be. A fair amount of time is spent showing how an arms dealer whom Eddie knows goes about the dangerous work of selling guns to criminals of both the professional and amateur variety. While much of this isn't necessary to the central tale of Coyle, it is actually done well enough to remain intriguing. Many of these scenes actually exhibit much that other filmmakers could learn about how to execute tense and suspenseful scenes which still feel fairly organic.

In spite of these mildly tangential moments, the movie coheres at the end, without leaving any dangling elements. Thanks to the generally sordid nature of his business and a horribly unfortunate mix-up, Coyle is targeted for assassination. I couldn't help but think that this movie is essentially the third act of Goodfellas, when Henry Hill sees all of his past glories and successes fall away as he becomes severed from the life of crime which had nurtured him for so long. The difference with Eddie Coyle, however, is that we have no sense that Coyle ever had a "heyday" when he lived the high life and rubbed elbows with mafia big shots. For this reason, Eddie Coyle feels more sadly authentic, and of course far less entertaining, than a Scorsese or Coppola gangster movie.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is probably too dreary for me to watch again. Still, I have to admit that it is extremely well done and still shows why it is, to this day, considered among the best gangster movies.

Harold Shand - a man who wants profitable peace but has
a frightening violent streak dragged out over the course
of this tense film.
The Long Good Friday (1980)

Director: John Mackenzie

This was the second time I've seen this one. I found it excellent the first time, and it only improved.

The only difficulty I can point out has nothing to do with the film itself. It is merely that there is an abundance of cockney crime slang, which can be tough to decipher, even for one who is familiar with it through movies and novels, like me.

Foreign phrases aside, this movie is an all-time great. Even more than 1971's Get Carter, The Long Good Friday paints a portrait of a British gangster that is as compelling as it is creative. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London-based gangster who has overseen nearly a decade of peace and prosperity in the organized crime world. With the 1980s freshly underway, Harold has big plans for massive, mostly-legitimate expansion, and he is about to host a representative of the Sicilian-American mafia in order to forge a partnership. Just as the visit is about to begin, though, some very bad things start happening. A few of Harold's top lieutenants are killed. One of his pubs is bombed. Another bomb is found in one of his casinos. Somebody clearly has it in for him.

The movie follows Harold as he tries to figure out first what is going on, and then who is responsible, so that he knows where to aim his murderous rage. The details of the plot can be rather difficult to follow at times, due in part to the heavy accents and regional slang, but the gist is quite clear: someone is out to get Harold, and Harold is not a man who takes kindly to being gotten. It's the stuff of some of the very best gangster tales, be they in literature or film. There is an almost noir-like impenetrability to the plot, so that it is much easier to feel Harold's disorientation. It's easy to see why he makes several missteps, and its also easy to see why he reacts so violently when certain details are revealed. With each new piece of information he discovers or weeds out through beatings and torture, either the mystery deepens or the scope grows to frightening proportions. This movie is very clearly where plenty of modern British crime movies like those of Guy Ritchie took many of their cues. While the more recent movies exaggerate the entertaining aspects of hard-boiled criminals and their exploits, though, The Long Good Friday keeps the tone far darker and more menacing.

Harold Shand (middle), showing some creativity with his
methods of information extraction.
The performances by the stars of the movie are phenomenal. The secondary characters are played by many faces familiar to those who have seen some of the more popular British crime movies, and a few were even used by Guy Ritchie later in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. We also get a rather young Helen Mirren as Harold's sophisticated, modern gun moll, and Mirren predictably nails the role. Most amazing of all of the strong performances, though, is that of Bob Hoskins. His turn as besieged crime lord Harold Shand is one that is arguably unmatched in British crime movies. His shifts in personality, from gregariously charismatic optimist to snarling, vengeful, and brutal thug are completely natural and captivating. His is one of those performances that draws the eye to his character in virtually every scene, and even warrants multiple viewings.

This was the second time that I've watched this movie, and I'm quite likely to watch it again. Anyone who has ever enjoyed British gangster movies owes it to themselves to watch this touchstone film in the genre.

American Gangster (2007)

Director: Ridley Scott

A solid offering of a Scarface-style, making-of-a-gangster movie of a different breed, if not exactly a modern classic.

Based on real events, American Gangster follows the rise of Frank Lucas, the very real drug kingpin who rose to power in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to his climb to crime-lord, Lucas (Denzel Washington) had been an associate of the powerful and influential boss Bumpy Johnson. When Johnson dies, Lucas sees the opportunity to place himself in the gap left by Johnson's death, a gap left mostly in the heroin market. Knowing the landscape of the local illegal drug trade, Lucas knows that he can't compete with the already-entrenched forces of smaller local drug lords and the corrupt police force. He therefore goes directly to a major source of heroin - Vietnam. Using a few old neighborhood friends, the enterprising Lucas cuts a deal with a Vietnamese opium grower and purveyor to sell to him directly. Lucas also organizes a method for getting the opium into the U.S. on board military planes making regular trips between Vietnam and the U.S.

While Lucas's power begins to grow, New Jersey police officer Richie Roberts (Russel Crowe) is fighting the good fight. In ways very reminiscent of Serpico - another story based on true events - Roberts is one of the very few clean cops on the force, which alienates him from nearly all of his fellow officers. It is, however, his incorruptibility that brings him to the eye of state officials who make him head of a force tasked with bringing down the ever-growing illegal drug trade in the greater New York City area. This sets Roberts on the path to tracking down Frank Lucas and attempting to put together a case that will bring down the cautious and savvy criminal and his organization.

The movie bears plenty of familiar elements, the most obvious being the two well-known crime movies already mentioned. But while there may not be much that is exactly novel about the basic elements of the story, director Ridley Scott spins the tale out in entertaining and engaging ways. Richie Roberts's detective work is not unlike what we see in the first season of The Wire, with a small crew of dedicated cops using all of their wits to grasp the scope and details of a massive illegal operation and bring down those in control. The cast does plenty to elevate many of the confrontations and exchanges above their occasional mediocrity, and watching the inevitable collision between Lucas and Roberts slowly develop is engaging. The resolution of the movie is a bit atypical of such movies, and it provides a really solid scene between Washington and Crowe.

As with most movies based on real events, I did a bit of informal research to see just how close to reality the events in the film came. The short answer is: not very close. By most accounts, the real Lucas was not nearly as suave or endearing as the on-screen version, and Roberts is actually portrayed in a slightly less appealing light than the real man. This is another case in which I feel that I would almost prefer to watch a well-done documentary on this topic, even when the dramatized version is of high quality.