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Alex Rocco

Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

The French Connection was about as good as a movie can get without reflecting the creative concentration of a single controlling artistic presence. Ernest Tidyman’s script evoked a convincing sense of a behavioral reality realized and sustained in pungent language that sounded as if it were spoken by people, not characters in a screenplay; William Friedkin’s direction paced that reality perfectly and extended it in patterns of action and movement; Owen Roizman’s camerawork achieved precision while staying limber and unaffectedly nervous, and Jerry Greenberg’s editing wired the whole thing into a dynamic narrative experience. One tended to accept producer Phil d’Antoni’s claims that it was his film: at no point did the picture flag, owing to the expert collaboration of a committee of accomplished artisans, but neither did it suggest (save perhaps in Gene Hackman’s performance) that its aspirations were anything but shrewdly commercial. The Friends of Eddie Coyle recalls the earlier—and better—film, especially in relation to its director. Nothing in William Friedkin’s earlier projects pointed toward The French Connection (nor did they seem related to one another). And, like Friedkin, director Peter Yates has never manifested anything but a technician’s interest in earning his wage: Bullitt, John and Mary, and Murphy’s War are comparable only in a consistent failure to get inside any of the characters and, especially in Bullitt and Murphy, a tendency to substitute facile rhetoric (McQueen’s indefensibly complacent “Bullshit!” to Robert Vaughn, followed shortly by Vaughn’s retreat behind a copy of The Wall Street Journal) for serious moral perspective.

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Review: The Outside Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The American cinema owes the French cinema—which is to say French critics and audiences as well as French filmmakers—an enormous debt. And so do any American cinephiles whose cataracted vision began to clear only after Gallic enthusiasm pointed the way to a discovery of our national cinematic treasures. Why, the film noir, one of the richest veins in our movie mines, bears a French moniker; and French cinéastes have emulated that particular tradition time and again, from the commercial likes of Borsalino to the more personal genre work of the recently deceased Jean-Pierre Melville to the radically stylized, self-aware poetry of Godard’s Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le fou. The progression syntactically implied there is stylistic rather than chronological: Borsalino, an enjoyable piece of period fluff concocted by Jacques Deray, postdates the others. It would be nice to say that Deray’s first American-made film added new dimensions to the genre; that a foreign filmmaker practiced in shooting French-based derivations of our native genre might reveal to us unsuspected strains of exoticism gleaming out of the domestic bedrock. But no.

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Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

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MOD Movies: Jean-Louis Trintignant is ‘The Outside Man’

The Outside Man (MGM Limited Edition Collection) is out-of-town contract killer Lucien Bellon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Paris gunman hired to take out a Los Angeles mob boss, which he does with no fuss or loose ends. Or so he thinks, until he realizes that he’s considered a loose end when a local hitman (Roy Scheider in a largely unspoken performance) targets him as he prepares to leave the country.

Though set and shot in Los Angeles, with a largely American cast (including Ann-Margret as the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold who helps Lucien out, Angie Dickinson, John Hillerman, Alex Rocco, Talia Shire, and Georgia Engel) and a distinctive score with funky soul guitar and wah-wah pedal, this gangster movie turned cat-and-mouse thriller is a French production with a European sensibility shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

Director Jacques Deray may not be the best French crime movie filmmaker of his era but he has way of taking his time and methodically playing out his situations. He isn’t so much interested in action as atmosphere and his portrait of American culture gives the crime movie conventions a distinctive sensibility. Deray and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière are fascinated with the urban landscape of Tower Records and hamburger joints and busy streets, and the perspective is as much from their perspective as it is of the Paris hitman abroad. Lucien runs across hippie hookers and a Jesus freak hitchhiker, checks the news on coin-operated TVs in the bus station, and takes refuge with a single mother and her bratty son (a very young Jackie Earle Haley), where they watch “Star Trek” reruns over dinner.

The script is clever and woven through with witty asides and blasts of dark humor, and if it never really tense or suspenseful, it features a superb cast (including Michel Constantin as Trintignant’s Paris connection, who flies in to help settle the score), some very clever set pieces, and a great look at American urban culture from a European perspective. And the obligatory third act payback, a matter of honor and obligation doomed to mutual destruction, is both perfectly American and utterly French. Some gangster movie conventions are universal.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from AmazonScreen Archives Entertainment,Critics’ Choice VideoClassic Movies NowWarner Archive, and other web retailers.

Hearts of the West

Hearts of the West will be shown on Turner Classic Movies this coming Friday, Nov. 4, at 9 a.m. West Coast time, 12 noon Eastern. Here’s the program note from the “Marvelous Modern Scripts” screening. —RTJ

There isn’t really a whole lot that needs to be teased out of Hearts of the West. It’s a pleasant film—from its opening 1.33:1 masking of the old monochrome MGM logo, a movie full of affection for the absurdities, inanities, and tacky pleasures of El Cheapo filmmaking and fictionmaking. Its gentle teasing of would-be writers steeped in formulae and short on living experience is readily apparent. Offsetting this is our pleasurable awareness that “The Kid” Lewis Tater writes about and the enthusiastic “kid” that he is probably both reflect aspects of the local kid—Rob Thompson of Bothell—whose first script this was. He took it to Hollywood and a couple of days later he had sold it to producer Tony Bill, who happened to be having an afternoon drink in the same bar where Thompson and a mutual friend were sitting. The rest is history, of a sort: Hearts of the West got made to the satisfaction of those involved, critics and film festival audiences warmed to it, MGM gave it the wrong ad campaign, and mostly people didn’t go to see it. A lost masterpiece it’s not; a nice movie to make the acquaintance of, it remains.

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