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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Higgins Hitman Jackie Cogan on Film and in Print

Cogan's Trade
By George V. Higgins
(Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; Reprinted Nov. 2011)
Kindle edition, 226 pages.
ISBN:  030794722X

When you run a business and problems pop up, you have to retain specialists to deal with them. Say you operate a restaurant and your dishwasher breaks down; you have to bring in a plumber to fix it. Your business uses computers to keep track of inventory and your server goes down? Chances are you are going to have to hire an IT expert.

So it is with organized crime: if an enterprise goes off the tracks, somebody has to fix it – particularly when the way it goes awry frightens off  the customers the business depends on. Thus, when a trio of numbskulls robs a Mafia-protected illegal gambling operation in Boston in 1974. The mob turns to Jackie Cogan to manage the repair job.

Fixing the damage is crucial: since the robbery, all the ther mob-connected card games have shut down and the Mafia is losing a fortune in tribute the games’ operators pay to remain in business. The success of one robbery has raised the prospect of copycats, so the perpetrators must be found and dealt with quickly:

“Shit, we’re gonna have kids waiting in line, knock them fuckin’ games over, they open up again,” Cogan tells the mob lawyer who acts as his intermediary. “You got any idea how many wild-ass junkies there are around? If he (the organizer) gets away with this, well, we might as well just forget it, once and for all, just quit.”

Cogan is a specialist in fixing this type of problem by a judicious application of violence. It is, in fact, his profession:  Cogan’s Trade, as it is styled in the original title of the 1974 novel by George V. Higgins that has been turned into the motion picture, Killing Them Softly.

To sensibly review the movie, however, a few words about the original novel are in order.

Any thoughtful person who has read one of Higgins’ books knows that action is not his métier. Higgins, who died in 1999, cut his teeth on organized crime, first as an assistant district attorney, then an Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the federal Organized Crime Strike Force, and finally as a newspaper reporter and columnist.

Rather than focusing on mob big shots like Mafia Don Raymond Patriarca, or middle-level gangsters like Vincent Teresa, Higgins’ early novels, starting with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” in 1972, concentrated on the world of small-time wise guys who were strictly ham-and-eggers: lunch-pail criminals that have more in common with the blue collar workers who build the skyscraper than the architect who designed it or the board of directors that commissioned it.

For these working class criminals, life is an unending procession of tedious days spent working at secondary jobs or running small businesses that cover for their illegal activities. 

They deal with unsuccessful marriages, wayward children, pushy mistresses (who resent their secondary status) and dim-witted colleagues. Hours are spent during which nothing of substance is achieved: just a lot of meetings in parked cars, business offices and local taverns, engaging in aimless talk about proposed crimes that never come to fruition.

Higgins knows these losers. He spent hours listening to Title III wiretap intercepts of their conversations, deciphering their peculiar underworld slang, hashing out their schemes, hearing the dull repetitive monotony of their lives, all in their own words. 

The real treat in a Higgins novel is his dialog, which captures the cadence, scansion and vocabulary of the cheap crook with dead-bang accuracy.  In a Higgins novel, you hear criminals talking to each other the way they actually do – stripped of any glamour or imposed literary devices.

And because these criminals are mental lightweights, their plots often go astray. They engage in risky break-ins seeking valuables that, it turns out, have been removed to a bank’s safety deposit box a few days earlier; they shoot the wrong person; they rob the wrong store.

Or, in the case of Cogan’s Trade, they steal $53,000 from a Mafia card game at gunpoint, assuming they will get away with the theft because the game’s operator robbed it himself several years earlier and was never punished for his treachery.

This, then, is the basic outline of Cogan’s Trade. The plot mechanics consist of Jackie Cogan figuring out who did the job, then setting things back in order.  On the way, we hear various criminals – including Cogan himself – bitch about their bosses, reminisce about previous capers, and discuss the minutia of their lives.

Some of their dialog is hilarious, but it is hilarious in an unintentional way, not because they spout glib wisecracks like Philip Marlowe, but because of the fact that they approach their professions with deadly earnestness, and express themselves in the lurid language of petty criminals.

For example, while two thugs are waiting to “interrogate” Markie Trattman, the operator of the card game that was robbed, they end up discussing Trattman’s remarkably active sex life and seeming ability to bed a woman who is a total stranger every night: “I think the guy’s afraid, there’s some broad some place inna world that’s gonna fuck, and he’ll die without asking her. That’s what Jackie said. ‘Guy gets more ass’n a toilet seat.’”

The action in the novel is relatively minor. Three people are killed, quickly and efficiently. One man is savagely beaten.  And that’s it. The amount of mayhem, given that the novel is 224 pages long, is really rather minor.

But action is not what Cogan’s Trade is really about. The novel is a short, trenchant case study of a unique form of American capitalism. In it, Cogan is portrayed dealing with his own untrustworthy subordinates, resolving a dispute with a subcontractor he has hired to perform a murder, and dickering over work-related expenses with the reluctant, bean-counting attorney who serves as the intermediary for the Mafia boss who has hired him. 

In the end, he finds that he has been cheated on his fee for resolving the problems caused by the original card game heist.

Although this capitalistic subtext is not ladled on, it clearly underlies the entire novel.  A perceptive critic has pointed out that Higgins doesn’t actually write crime novels – he writes social histories, among which are studies of criminals.  Cogan’s Trade is clearly one of these: a microeconomic study of the criminal subclass at work and play. Only the most willfully ignorant reader will miss this underlying message of this novel.

Which brings us to Killing Them Softly, which would appear to be a perfect match for its Cogan’s Trade source material.

Appearances can be quite deceiving. 

Andrew Dominick, director and screenwriter of The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, has assembled a cast that, for the most part, is terrific: Brad Pitt is Cogan, Ray Liotta is the game operator Markie Trattman, James Gandolfini as Micky, a hitman hired by Cogan for a secondary job, and veteran character actor Richard Jenkins is the lawyer serving as Cogan’s liaison with his Mafia client.

One could quibble with some of the film’s deviations from the book that appear to have nothing to do with moving the plot along more quickly or simplifying the action. For instance, the nationality of one of the card game robbers, Russell, has been changed from American to Australian, and key lines have been cut from his dialog that render nonsensical his later comment that he would rather be back in Vietnam  than pursued by a Mafia assassin because at least there he had the ability to shoot back.

Another inexplicable change has Cogan use a semiautomatic pistol from the passenger side of the front seat of a car to kill one of his victims, while in the book he used a semiautomatic rifle from the rear seat.

But these are minor points that are negligible considering the major faults of the film.

Dominick, who gave himself credit as screenwriter with Higgins on this film, apparently doesn’t feel Higgins’ novel was clear enough in its critique of capitalism.  Although he keeps the basic plot and characters and uses much of the dialogue from the novel without alteration, he has taken the liberty of updating the action, such as it is, to 2008 to coincide with the collapse of the world economy due to the unsecured lending crisis.

As a result, the film has a variety of anachronisms – such as Russell’s service in Indochina, even though he is clearly in his late 20s or early 30s – that appear ridiculous.

 In addition, the film has been larded with visual references to the 2008 financial collapse, televisions in bars spouting stories about the crisis and spewing sound bites from George W. Bush III, Barack Obama and John McCain commenting on the future of the U.S. in light of the collapse of key industries, massive unemployment and the destruction of billions upon billions of dollars in personal savings. As a consequence, the film takes the subtle comparison of organized crime and legitimate business made in the novel and rubs it in the viewer’s face with neither wit nor sophistication.

In the event this ham-handed revision does not make the point obvious enough for even the densest viewer, Dominick inserts a lengthy and gratuitous speech by Cogan at the film’s end in which the Mafia enforcer says something along the lines of “America is a business. . . now pay me.” This entire speech is utterly leaden and so completely out of synch with the character of Cogan carefully developed earlier in the movie that the viewer might be forgiven for thinking a reel from another film had been accidentally substituted.

Cogan’s Trade remains a book worth reading, nearly 40 years after its first publication. Unfortunately, Killing Them Softly falls far short of its superior source material. The real tragedy here is that Killing is the first adaptation of a Higgins novel since The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released 39 years ago.

Because of its signal flaws, it will probably be the last until 2051.

Cogan's Trade earns a full complement of five nooses.

Unfortunately, Killing Them Softly receives only three nooses from this reviewer:

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