Sunday 30 September 2012

Killing Them Softly: George V. Higgins and Life After Death

There is this to be said for being a good writer. You get a shot at life after death.

I realised this quite forcefully as I sat and watched the new Brad Pitt crime movie Killing Them Softly

The trailers for this had looked promising, and I'd been mildly looking forward to seeing it.

But then I discovered it was based on the novel Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins, and mild anticipation turned to mild apprehension.

Because Higgins is a hero of mine.

Now largely forgotten, he's a major figure in American crime fiction, on a par with Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard. Indeed, Higgins' dialogue-led prose style, in which characterisation and plot are largely delivered by letting his characters speak for themselves, demotically and hilariously and at length, was a major influence on Elmore Leonard's later work.

Higgins' raw, authentic, profane and often very funny dialogue was brilliantly written and represented a kind of blue collar American version of Pinter. It was a huge influence on David Mamet.

Higgins first novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle created quite a splash and was turned into an excellent film by Peter Yates and Paul Monash. It was followed by The Digger's Game and Cogan's Trade.

When I learned Andrew Dominick's new film was based on Cogan's Trade I braced myself for a disaster. I was very protective of Higgins brilliant work which, like Elmore Leonard's, can so easily end up disastrously botched when adapted for the cinema.

I needn't have worried. Killing Them Softly is magnificent. It's a masterpiece. It's a movie. Yes, it's a magnificent, mean and moody movie masterpiece.

And it's utterly true to the George V. Higgins novel. When I first saw it (I've seen it twice now and this week I mean to make it a hat trick) I marvelled at how carefully they'd preserved Higgins' superb dialogue.

All power to Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand director and screenwriter who adapted it so beautifully. (His last film was the haunting and elegiac Assassination of Jesse James, a sort of Terence Malick western.)

I was still shaking my head in wonder at how faithful Dominick had been to the source material when I dug out my old paperback copy of Cogan's Trade and started re-reading it.

And I made this extraordinary discovery.

The movie wasn't that close to the book after all.

Yes, it had absolutely preserved the spirit and flavour of Higgins' original. It had captured the essence of it.

But Andrew Dominick has been ingeniously discriminating and selective, adding his own material which is absolutely in keeping with Higgins' book.

His feat is even more impressive than I thought. 

Even more power to Andrew Dominick.

I hope the movie is a huge hit. It certainly stands the chance of finding a large audience thanks to the presence of Pitt. And it has a large overlap with popular urban organised-crime dramas like The Sopranos or the films of Scorsese (and some canny casting reinforces these connections).

But some people find it too downbeat, bleak and talky. A couple sitting behind me walked out after the scene with James Gandolfini and the hooker in the hotel room. 

One of the best scenes in the movie, incidentally.

So you should rush and see this terrific movie while you can. 

And then read some George V. Higgins. He wrote a long string of novels, all of which have merit. But I still think the first three are perhaps the strongest, and certainly the best place to start.

Thanks to Andrew Dominick's dazzling film, George V. Higgins, who died in 1999, lives again.

1 comment:

  1. Cannot wait for the US release. (In an effort to increase its Oscar chances, they've pushed it back to a November 30th release here.)