*. The novel, by George V. Higgins, was a game changer for the crime genre. It was almost all dialogue, and the dialogue was both realistic and smart.
*. Peter Yates wanted Higgins to get a credit for the screenplay but couldn’t swing it. Most of what is good about the screenplay is taken directly from the book. I think there is one improvement, in making Dillon into the rat. In the book it’s Scalise’s girlfriend Wanda who drops the dime, but in the process of abridgement that is necessary in any adaptation from page to screen I think it was wise to cut this part out and double down on Dillon’s treachery.
*. As a side note, from the production stills it’s clear that they did film this part of the novel (there are shots of Scalise beating Wanda and her then speaking to the police), so the decision to cut her part out of the story was obviously a late one.
*. On the other side of the ledger, I think introducing the character of Eddie’s wife is a mistake. I can understand the desire to make him into a more rounded, sympathetic figure, but these scenes play false, particularly in the dialogue, which seems unnatural and forced. I also thought it too bad they couldn’t include the final line from Higgins’s book, about how the players come and go but the game always stays the same. As it stands, we end with an ambiguous note. Did Foley consciously bring about Dillon’s hit on Doyle?
*. Pauline Kael thought it should have been better, and suspected that it needed an American director who better understood the milieu. I wonder who she might have had in mind. Not the obvious name, Scorsese, because Mean Streets only came out later the same year and it would be another thirty years before Scorsese went to Boston to do The Departed.
*. I’m not sure I agree with Kael’s point anyway. I think Yates has a good feel for the material, and indeed he remarks on the DVD commentary how at home he felt in Boston. Furthermore, we know the Brits could do this kind of thing. What with the period, the score, the downbeat ending, and the use of real urban working-class locations, there’s a real Get Carter vibe to this film. And later Mike Newell would do fine at the helm of Donnie Brasco.
*. Yates’s predilection for realism (he remarks on the commentary that “my style is to make things look absolutely realistic” through a blend of “reality and simplicity”) is well suited for this kind of story. There’s always been a pull in the crime genre toward docudrama and the newsreel. The Naked City (1948) may be the archetype. That’s not to say such movies are without style — far from it — but that they have an air of understatement, process, and workmanship. They only want to seem without artifice. Yates didn’t even want to use a handheld camera in any scenes because he thought of it as a distracting, gimmicky trick.
*. It’s a movie about cops and robbers, but more than that it’s a movie about professionals. Nobody in the movie, with the possible exception of Jackie Brown, ever gets excited or worked up about anything, ever shouts or gets angry. The heist scenes in particular are conducted in near total silence. Does this make them dull? A bit. Roger Ebert found it ironic that the scenes that just have two people talking are more exciting than the kidnappings and robberies.
*. That understatement is also characteristic of Robert Mitchum. Mitchum is an actor I’ve always had trouble warming to, but I really like him here. In particular, I like something that Yates draws attention to in his commentary: the way he uses his normally sleepy eyes. These are eyes that aren’t just watching and following the man he’s talking to, but are actively working, constantly being used to add emphasis or make a point. Given that so many of his scenes are done sitting down behind a table he has to use what he has to make the lines work, and he certainly does.
*. With such a big, undemonstrative man you notice these small things. In the scene with Foley at the diner note his eyes and also the way he’s always shaking and nodding his head and leaning his body toward Foley in a plaintive manner. I think it’s because I’m so unused to seeing Mitchum’s eyes, or seeing him using his large body in a dramatic way, that all of this really impressed me.
*. I think it was Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death who first made the point that Americans could never elect a bald president again. How often do we even see bald actors any more (I’m not including those who make a virtue out of necessity and shave their heads). Nothing says failure quite like Peter Boyle’s straggly fringe. It’s just too bad Yates could never match it up with a shot of the gold dome of the Boston State House. What a rhyme that would have been.
*. Looking at this movie today though, perhaps the most amazing thing is how good Richard Jordan (Dave Foley) and Steven Keats (Jackie Brown) are. They even take scenes away from the vets. And yet neither actor went on to do much else, and then died young (Jordan of cancer, Keats by suicide).
*. It was Keats’s film debut, and he was cast because they thought he looked like Mick Jagger. And, as Yates comments, “Mick Jagger was absolutely right for the part.” Oh no he wasn’t. Hadn’t Yates seen Performance?
*. As I noted above, the Foley character is darkly ambiguous. Does he set Eddie up? Is he just making up the bit about how tough the D.A. in New Hampshire is in order to screw more out of him? And most of all, why does he lead Eddie on in their final scene together before slapping him down with the headline in the newspaper that kills any chance Eddie has at cutting a deal? That seems like pointless, even counterproductive, cruelty.
*. Is this film where Tarantino picked up the name Jackie Brown? Probably not, though the essay by Kent Jones included in the Criterion DVD release makes the suggestion. The film Jackie Brown was based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, where the heroine is Jackie Burke. When Tarantino changed her ethnicity he changed her name (clever, huh?). Also, I think the only time the name of Keats’s character is given is in the credits. Which means that if you hadn’t read Higgins’s novel the name might never have registered.
*. It would be hard to make a movie with such a depressing, fatalistic ending today. Even at the time Yates was consciously trying to avoid making a “Hollywood movie.” For one thing, we expect our heroes to be masters of their fate. But Eddie is a pawn in the larger game between Uncle and The Man, being manipulated by forces beyond his control or understanding. It’s fitting that he’s murdered in his sleep.
*. I don’t know if it gets noticed as much in a movie like this, but the wardrobe is terrific. I like Jackie Brown’s worn jeans, faded around the outline of his wallet. And I really love that thin, dirty sports jacket Eddie is wearing. It fits right in with that greasy diner he goes to meet Foley in.
*. Yates: “In those days you never used to go to an ice hockey game and there wasn’t a fight. They all loved it.” And Yates was a fan. Overall, this is one of the better handlings I’ve seen of actors watching a sporting event. Sticking them up in the nosebleed section, so far away from the action, probably helped a lot with the filming.
*. Though well received critically, this has never been a hugely popular film, and still isn’t today even with its Criterion release. There are some obvious reasons why. Yates acknowledges it was made “maybe in slight opposition to The Godfather . . . because it’s completely the other side of being a gangster. It’s the side of reality, the side of un-glamour.” This isn’t the gangster life that people want to see, and it’s especially not how they want their movies to end. In avoiding making another “Hollywood movie” Yates made something unique, but doomed the film commercially. One can’t help thinking of what a Scorsese or a Tarantino would have done with the same material, and then one realizes how narrow a vision of reality or personal expression our movies today, even our best movies, actually have.