Sunday, June 26, 2011
The Friends of Whitey Bulger
I was working at a newspaper in Waterbury, CT when Whitey Bulger went on the lam.
It was December 1994 and I hadn’t been in New England for very long, so I didn’t know much about the infamous gangster, who, according to at least one law enforcement official, was more feared in Boston than John Gotti was in New York.
And I certainly didn’t know about his bizarre relationship with the FBI that allowed him to work as a government informant and a ruthless hoodlum simultaneously.
Bulger was in his 60’s at the time and the FBI description of him warned that the career criminal was known to carry a knife strapped to his ankle.
I couldn't believe that. A knife strapped to his ankle? The guy was old enough to be someone’s grandfather and he’s running around with a shiv down his sock? But like I said, I didn’t know much about Whitey Bulger.
Bulger’s run from the law finally came to an end a long way from South Boston. The FBI said a search of his Santa Monica, CA apartment turned up more than $800,000 in cash, 30 guns, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns, and several knives. They didn’t say anything about the old guy carrying a knife around his ankle.
Clearly there’s a ton drama in this story, from the supposed “good” brother who was president of the Massachusetts State Senate and then president of UMASS; to the FBI agent who so outrageously aided and abetted 81-year-old former fugitive.
I read where Bulger was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” but I’ve been thinking more of a 1973 movie called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which I saw years ago at the dearly departed Fortway Theater in Brooklyn.
Based upon a novel by George V. Higgins, the film stars Robert Mitchum as an aging Boston hoodlum who is desperate to stay out of jail.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the movie the first time I saw it. I was a teenager and looking for an action head banger with screeching car crashes and slow motion machine gun battles.
But I’ve been on a bit of Seventies kick lately so I rented this film and now I can see that it was never intended to be a thriller.
The film is really a window on a very dangerous world, where no one can be trusted, the threat of prison looms overhead like the guillotine’s blade, and a night out with friends could very well be your last night on earth.
One character, a gunrunner, draws down on some customers because he fears they’re going to rip him off. I don’t know if they were or not, but when you make your living selling illegal weapons you can’t afford to be wrong. (The actor who played this part, Steven Keats, committed suicide in 1994.)
The criminals and the feds operate with a kind of willful blindness, with the law enforcement people knowing full well that their snitches are up to no good, but not really caring as long as they get to throw somebody in the can.
Unlike so many other crime movies, there is no sense of justice prevailing or rights being wronged in this film; it’s just another day in the jungle.
Hollywood has often been accused of romanticizing gangsters, but that is definitely not the case with "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."
In fact, I would advise anyone considering a life of crime to watch this movie before putting on that ski mask. See how friends stab each other in the back; watch how the cops twist hapless losers into knots.
If you see all of that and still want to be a hood then I wish you luck. And I suggest you think about strapping a knife to your ankle.