When Peter Boyle died in 2006, all the headlines could think to say about him was that he'd been the grumpy dad in Everybody Loves Raymond and the monster in Young Frankenstein. But at the start of his career he was a tough, charismatic character actor who added individuality and intelligence to a number of films.
He got attention in 1970, in the title role of Joe — in effect, Archie Bunker with a gun. In 1971 he turned down Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, leaving it to Gene Hackman to collect the Oscar. That may have been his big career mistake: Hackman became Hollywood's bald character actor of choice. But Boyle was more interestingly and aggressively bald than Hackman, with an ugly fringe of black hair around the edge of his scalp: perhaps that was too much of a fuck-you to Hollywood standards of beauty and grooming for him ever to make it really big. Still, he kept getting work, and he was on an upward curve in 1973, when Slither and The Friends of Eddie Coyle were released.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an adaptation of one of George V. Higgins's crime novels, about a small-time Boston hood who makes money by selling guns to bank robbers and stays out of jail by snitching. Robert Mitchum played Eddie: he looks worn out and ripe for a fall, and it's a shame that he gets stuck with some lengthy speeches about the hardships of the criminal life — they feel like a clumsy lunge at significance by a director who doesn't have enough faith in plot, action and actors. (That's Peter Yates, by the way: if you ask me, it's the same problem that afflicts Bullitt, where poor old Jacqueline Bisset gets stuck with some very dreary stuff about the brutalizing effect of Steve McQueen's police work.) Boyle has better luck with his part: he's Dillon, a barman in the bar Coyle likes to visit — ordinary looking, but quite early on we learn that he's snitching to the same Treasury agent as Coyle, whining about his money problems and how much he needs the puny twenty bucks the Treasury guy pays him every week. Turns out he's a hitman, though, at five grand a pop (the still above shows him negotiating his terms of payment). Like Coyle, Dillon's trying to play off both sides; but he's a lot better at it.
Boyle plays Dillon as a man without much of a personality, just a series of masks and ploys. There's nothing remotely romantic about his hitman — no samurai professionalism, no existential relationship with death, not even a particularly impressive fee structure. It could easily have been a turn — it could have been his Popeye Doyle; instead, he tries hard to make him real.
Slither was a change of pace, though it's still about crime and still about losers. James Caan, fresh out of jail, is given the secret of "unimaginable" wealth by a friend who's just been gut-shot and is about to blow himself up with some sticks of dynamite. To get the money, he has to find a man called Barry Fenaka, who turns out to be a danceband leader with a strong line in tacky comic patter and an enthusiasm for "recvees" (recreational vehicles). There are echoes of North by Northwest, but with the glamour and suspense all sanded away — Cary Grant gets trapped by the bad guys at an art auction; the same thing happens to James Caan at a trailer-park bingo game. And the language, with its calculated banalities and characters becoming obsessed with certain words, put me in mind of Charles Portis (The Dog of the South, not True Grit). It's a slow film, amusing rather than funny, aiming for puzzlement more than suspense. Caan has to carry it, but Boyle supplies most of the comic energy; and he wears what must be one of the most heroically self-sacrificing combovers in film history:
Great love hath no man than this: that he has really shitty hair for the sake of the movie. But shitty hair will never make you a star.
Author's note: Just re-read this; it doesn't work. Will re-write later. Come back and have another look in a few days.