Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Killing Them Softly' Goes by the Book

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Killing Them Softly' Goes by the Book

Article excerpt


Andrew Dominik was watching "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," a 1973 crime film starring Robert Mitchum, and was struck by the authenticity of its lowlife Boston hoods and their colorful dialogue. He then discovered the film had been based on a novel by George V. Higgins, who had been a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney for years.

Intrigued, Mr. Dominik ordered all of Higgins' two dozen novels, many of which were out of print. And once he read "Cogan's Trade," a 1974 work about a hit man hired to whack some robbers who ripped off a Mob-protected card game, Mr. Dominik knew he had the subject for his next film.

"The book had great characters, the dialogue was extraordinary, and the plot was very simple," says Mr. Dominik, director of "Killing Them Softly," starring Brad Pitt and based on the Higgins novel. "I liked Higgins' use of language, and the way the plot is incidentally tucked inside long monologues." The movie, which co- stars Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, opened Friday.

Mr. Dominik is obviously not the first director to film a crime novel. In fact, almost as long as there have been crime films, there have been movies based on crime fiction. The 1932 classic "Scarface" was originally a novel. Immortal hard-boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon"), James M. Cain ("Double Indemnity") and Raymond Chandler ("The Big Sleep") have long been Hollywood favorites. And more contemporary authors such as James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), Jim Thompson ("The Getaway") and Walter Mosley ("Devil in A Blue Dress") have also captured filmmakers' fancies.

The reason for this, says Geoff Mayer, author of "The Historical Dictionary of Crime Films," is that "filmmakers adapting well-known crime novels have a ready audience and bypass some of the complexities of film marketing." And, he adds, "Crime stories have an added advantage of verisimilitude -- a strong sense of plausibility and relevance to audiences who experience life in the big city."

It's also about the Benjamins, says Mr. Dominik, who feels "the unconscious appeal of the crime novel is that they're stories about capitalism, the American dream. It's one genre where your characters can be concerned about money above all things."

And there's this: Crime stories allow us to live vicariously through characters who live life on their own terms, legalities be damned.

Not that every good crime novel has been turned into a good movie. And not that every good adaptation has been utterly faithful to the source material. What many filmmakers like about these novels isn't necessarily plot, but "atmosphere, character and dialogue," says Geoffrey O'Brien, editor-in-chief of the Library of America, which recently published "American Noir," a two-volume set of classic crime fiction. These characteristics, says Mr. O'Brien, "offer a certain freedom to filmmakers, and sometimes the key is to be very free; it's not necessarily about being literally faithful."

It's obviously up to the director and screenwriter to decide what direction to take when adapting crime fiction. And when they go wrong, it's because, says Mr. O'Brien, "the emotional life goes out of them. There has to be some sense of edge to (the film) or else it just becomes a TV show. …

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