“I’m Moe Greene,’’ Alex Rocco thundered into Al Pacino’s face. “I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders.’’
Rocco, who passed away on Saturday, milked every frame of his three minutes in The Godfather, turning casino mogul Moe Greene into one of the best-remembered characters in one of the greatest films ever made. Bringing the perfect mix of menace and self-regard, Rocco’s Greene scared the hell out of John Cazale’s Fredo, but presented Pacino’s Michael with the latest facile challenge to his bigger plans for the Corleone family.
Greene’s death is the one most people talk about when they recount the murders in the film’s iconic baptism scene.
It’s fitting, then, that Rocco’s obituaries will start and end with his performance in 1972’s The Godfather. But fast-forward one year, and you’ll watch Rocco give just as stunning a performance in one of the all-time great Boston movies, 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Rocco played Jimmy Scalise, a bank robber with a mean streak and a need for guns. His ties to Eddie Coyle, played by an aging Robert Mitchum (in one of his great later roles), leads to trouble for both men.
Director Peter Yates wasted no time in unleashing Rocco’s menacing demeanor, starting Eddie Coyle with a bank robbery scene so taut and spell-binding, you forget to breathe while watching it. Even with a mask covering his face, Rocco is unmistakable as both the leader of the gang and as a constant source of danger.
Ben Affleck’s The Town owes more than a passing debt to the pacing and thematic elements of Eddie Coyle’s robbery scene. Both films tried to present Boston’s grittier side. The Town succeeded in painting that picture for the audience. Eddie Coyle let its audience live that experience.
Rocco, born in Cambridge, fits right at home in a film that used its setting — Greater Boston — as an extra character. The Boston presented was as grimy and as tough as locals remember. It’s the same South End you’d find in historical non-fictions likeCommon Ground — run down, forgotten by city officials, scratching through the very beginnings of gentrification. And the same old Boston Garden, a barn for pounding beers and screaming fealty toward Bobby Orr. There’s the desolate expanse of Government Center Plaza. The anonymity of the Sharon Commuter Rail station. The dull, littered green along Cambridge’s Memorial Drive.
Though Moe Greene and Jimmy Scalise will live forever, Alex Rocco, the talented character actor, died on Saturday. He was 79. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is available on DVD and Blu-Ray as a Criterion Collection selection. Put the kids to bed and watch it.