Elmore Leonard and his works
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Elmore Leonard: ‘The best crime novel ever written.’

by Eddie Richey

“What I learned from George Higgins,” Mr. Elmore Leonard wrote in 2000, “was to relax, not be so rigid in trying to make the prose sound like writing, to be more aware of the rhythms of coarse speech and the use of obscenities. Most of all … hook the reader right away.”

“Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said he could get some guns.”

This is not the opening line to Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, written in 1992, the main character of which is named Jackie Brown, nor to Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown, based upon Rum Punch.

It is the opening line of George V. Higgins’ 1972 novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

“Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.”

The book is almost all dialogue. George Higgins was a U.S. Attorney in Boston. He based the book on an actual incident, the arrest of a small-time crook named Billy O’Brien, who was an associate of Whitey Bulger‘s Winter Hill Gang. Afraid O’Brien might rat him out, Bulger contracted Johnny Martorano to prevent any such treachery.

Mr. Martorano recently testified against his former employer, resulting in Mr. Bulger’s conviction on 11 counts of murder, including that of William O’Brien.

During the shooting of the film, Robert Mitchum, who plays Eddie Coyle, the character based upon Billy O’Brien, had dinner several times with Johnny Martorano.

Alex Rocco, who played Jimmy Scalise, was once indicted for murder (among the attorneys working on the case was George V. Higgins). He helped the production run smoothly, since, as an associate of Mr. Bulger, he had influence with the teamsters union. Mr. Rocco also appeared in The Godfather as Moe (“he was banging cocktail waitresses two at a time”) Green.

“I need a good leaving alone.”

The film is as great as the novel. I consider it Mitchum’s greatest performance. He’s tired, knows he’s getting old, worries about his family, he’s proud, tough, and has a code, which causes a moral dilemma.

In an article for Rolling Stone entitled “One Step Over The Fucked-Up line with Robert Mitchum,” Grover Sales writes about the making of the film. While bullshitting with the actor Peter Boyle, Mitchum’s trailer door opens. Out steps Mitchum, accompanied by two beautiful women. “You know the music to 2001? That’s the sound of Mitchum waking up in the morning.” said Peter Boyle. “If I had his life, I would die of euphoria.”

But on that morning, Robert Mitchum’s job was to feed lines of dialogue to Richard Jordan off-camera, which could have been done by anyone. But Mitchum insisted he do it.

Directed by Peter Yates, who also directed Bullitt and The Hot Rock, the plot exists only to show us who the characters are, as Charles Willeford said it should. Boston is as important a character as any in the film.

Yates has a wonderful way of shooting conversations in single takes, using long shots, with traffic and people and sounds intruding, just as in real life. There’s a grittiness to this film, a reality, a voyeuristic quality, which makes the viewer feel as though they are on police surveillance, trying to catch Eddie and his friends.

And this is where both the book and the film earn its just reputation. As much as I like Mr. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and love Mr. Leonard’s Rum Punch, The Friends of Eddie Coyle has greater authenticity, much of it due to seeing the characters struggle with such mundane problems as trying to meet their monthly nut, just like the rest of us schlubbs. Peter Boyle’s character Dillon may own a bar, but he works in it as the bartender. Eddie worries how will his wife, Sheila (the wonderful Irish actress Helena Carroll, who was in John Huston’s The Dead) will feed their two children, if he’s sent to prison. He’s depressed over the prospect of her having to go on welfare or take a job. The criminal life is depicted as the shitty, bleak, constant fight for survival it really is.

In Jackie Brown and Rum Punch, only Pam Grier as Jackie, and Robert Forster, as Max Cherry have this depth. Their scenes crackle. Each of them is getting old, and they know it. Compare Michael Keaton’s character of Ray Nicolette to Richard Jordan’s Dave Foley. Both are Federal Agents. But Foley is just as ruthless and treacherous as any of the criminals he’s trying to catch. In Rum PunchJackie Brown, you just know Jackie and Max are going to get the better of Nicolette.

Side note: Nicolette’s character reappears in both the novel and the film Out of Sight, the main character of which is named Jack Foley.

Both the film and the book are a huge influence on my own writing. During grad school, I bartended at the club where Henry Hill (Goodfellas) had a no-show job while on parole. You get to smell the shit of the mob life up close. Write it as you see it, it comes out as absurdity. The initial seduction of the criminal life is short-lived. You end up either dead, in prison, or eating “egg noodles with ketchup,” as Henry Hill did.

The movie poster for The Friends of Eddie Coyle reads: “It’s a grubby, violent, dangerous world. But it’s the only world they know. And they’re the only friends Eddie has.”

Eddie Richey

About Eddie Richey

The author is a screenwriter who is a Warne Marsh nut, and is working on the documentary "An Improvised Life." A former college professor who discovered the eerie similarities between academia and organized crime, he is currently working on the true story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted during a robbery and then arrested. Two wonderful directors are attached to two of his crime scripts, and two unapologetically Noirish scripts are seeking directors.

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