How many times have you heard that overused cliche, “neglected masterpiece”? Well, here’s a chance to truly discover one, while savoring one of Robert Mitchum’s best screen performances.
By Paul Mavis
In a shameless attempt by the Movies & Drinks night crew to get Criterion Collection Blu-ray upgrades, we’re looking back at The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a grim, downbeat gangster movie from English director Peter Yates that you can’t really say has been “forgotten”…because almost no one saw it during its original 1973 summer release. Director Yates didn’t do his Hollywood career any favors by directing this ultra-realistic, anti-romantic, anti-action actioner about a low-level Boston hood whose luck—if he had any to begin with—has finally run out.
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Starring legendary movie tough guy Robert Mitchum (in a typically artful “invisible” performance), along with an excellent supporting ensemble including Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, and Alex Rocco, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in stark contrast with its more famous Mafia and urban actioner precedents such as The Godfather and The French Connection, is a remarkably spare and winnowed-down mobster flick, devoid of Friedkin’s kinetic violence or Coppola’s operatic melodrama. Any hints of sentimentality, or cathartic vicariousness through violence, or romanticized action cliches like existential anti-heroes who are, deep down, honorable, have been vigorously scrubbed away here. One suspects this is really how it all goes down with low-level hoods who face a self-imposed life of little financial gain, absolutely no peace of mind, and inevitable betrayal…and it’s depressing as hell.
Past-it Boston hood nobody Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is getting squeezed into an increasingly smaller corner. Forever one of the “filler” gangsters who knows all the major players and their dealings, but who never parlayed a life of crime into financial security, middle-aged Eddie “Fingers” Coyle now faces a 3-to-5 spot in a New Hampshire prison for getting caught trucking a load of stolen Canadian Club whiskey. He pulled the job for bar-owner and mob-expediter Dillon (Peter Boyle), but Dillon’s not going to do anything to help Eddie, because Eddie’s a big boy and knew the risks. Eddie was a stand-up guy and didn’t rat out Dillon, but that doesn’t make Dillon beholden to him in the end.
Eddie, desperate to make some cash for his family before his sentencing, does a deal with gun runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), who promises 30 stolen handguns for Eddie’s bank-robbing friends, Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco) and Artie Van (Joe Santos). An off-hand comment by Jackie about some would-be radicals looking for machine guns gives Eddie the idea that he can feed this information to Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), a Treasury agent that Eddie “worked” with on past occasions. That way, Foley might slip a kind word to the New Hampshire prosecutor for Eddie, who’s helping out “Uncle.”
What Eddie doesn’t know is that Dillon is supplying information to Foley, too; in fact, everybody is offering up info to either save their own asses, or to jockey for better positions within their power bases. And guess who’s going to get caught in the middle of all this web of non-existent loyalties and so-called criminal codes of conduct?
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It’s impossible to write about The Friends of Eddie Coyle without revealing major plot spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to stop reading this review, and buy the Criterion disc (you see what we did there, Criterion—we move discs, baby!). Otherwise, as Eddie might say, you know what you’re getting into—you’re on your own.
Based on the highly-regarded George V. Higgins’ novel of the same name (Higgins was a real-life prosecuting/defense attorney), The Friends of Eddie Coyle vanished without a trace when it premiered at the end of June, 1973 (Walking Tall was still cleaning up at the drive-ins, and Live and Let Die and Paper Moon were getting the family audiences). One might assume that the lack of a big-name star was part of the problem with The Friends of Eddie Coyle‘s total failure at the box office; after all, Robert Mitchum had burnt a lot of his bridges with critics and audiences after a decade of misfires like Mister Moses, The Way West, Villa Rides, Anzio, Secret Ceremony, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, and The Wrath of God. Mitchum by ’73 may have still considered himself an “A-list” actor, but younger audiences had long-since abandoned him; younger studio execs had other names on their short list of must-have actors; and his days of headlining prominent, expensive, buzz-worthy Hollywood projects were coming to a close.
But I doubt even the most popular stars of that time period could have rescued The Friends of Eddie Coyle from audience indifference, because the subject matter is so relentlessly dour and un-romanticized, and director Yates’ deliberately hands-off stylistic approach is so necessarily unsympathetic. Producer Paul Monash was careful to take as much dialogue from Higgins’ novel and include it in the movie, wholecloth. I’ve only read one of Higgins’ novels (not Eddie Coyle), but I do know that Higgins used dialogue almost exclusively to tell his stories. The reader comes to the story right as it’s happening, with little in the way of “set-up” to orient the reader. Monash and Yates (who previously worked on audience pleasers Bullitt and The Hot Rock) have stuck religiously to Higgins’ original construct here, keeping the characters’ dialogue front-and-center in moving the plot along, letting the audience “sink or swim,” if you will, in trying to figure out exactly what is going on.
You have to listen to this movie, like you have to read Higgins’ books carefully, to discern what’s going on (as well, of course, as reading the nuances of the actors’ performances). There aren’t going to be a lot of action scenes and expository moments to keep you in the loop. Of course, this approach wasn’t going to endear The Friends of Eddie Coyle to a sizable portion of the potential audience. Having to work at “getting” a movie just isn’t something that a lot of viewers have experience in, considering how literal and linear are most mainstream Hollywood movie projects. The Friends of Eddie Coyle‘s ultra-realistic and frankly disorienting insistence on letting events unfold while the audience is left to play pick-up, isn’t exactly a recipe for boffo boxoffice.
Not helping matters (at least in terms of securing a popular hit) is the overwhelmingly depressing, downbeat nature of the subject matter. Romanticism is entirely eliminated here, from the movie’s visual design, to the denouement, spoiler where our “hero,” oblivious in a drunken stupor to his imminent demise, is killed without fanfare, without note, and without a whole lot of sympathy from the audience. One constantly wants to reevaluate the characters in The Friends of Eddie Coyle to fit in with our prescribed (and clichéd) notions of the types of people that populate these kinds of entertainments, but Yates and Monash, via Higgins, won’t allow us those comforting generalizations.
And that makes us focus on the worldview presented in the movie, and it isn’t pretty. Life in The Friends of Eddie Coyle‘s world is one of constant negotiation to either stay out of the joint, or to advance through the criminal (and law enforcement) ranks, or to keep from getting bashed about, or killed. That’s it. That’s what life is reduced to here. Eddie wants Foley to help him stay out of the joint. Foley wants information from Eddie so he can advance his cases through Waters (Mitchell Ryan), his superior. But even if Eddie gives information, Foley wants more, and why shouldn’t he? He’s got loser Eddie right where he wants him.
Dillon keeps Foley sweet to keep him off his back, while negotiating with “The Man” in his assignment to zap Eddie. And meanwhile, Scalise and Artie go around robbing banks, with no discernible improvement to their lives, while their victims remain equally emotionless and taciturn (when the gang kidnaps the first bank manager at his home, his expressionless family sits there as if this is all to be expected in today’s modern, violent, chaotic world).
The viewer perceives this worldview from the characters’ dialogue…but even then, a lot of what you hear isn’t trustworthy. Was Eddie really unaware of what he was transporting when he got busted in New Hampshire? He sounds sincere when he denies it, but all criminals lie, right? And did Foley really make that call to the New England prosecutor on behalf of Eddie, or was he just shining Eddie on? In the end, none of that matters. These and other conversations the characters in The Friends of Eddie Coyle have are just a series of calculated admissions, half-truths, feints, and parries, all of which are designed to garner knowledge without revealing any, with the added purpose of attaining better purchase for the talker.
Any larger sense of loyalty alluded to in these conversations is ultimately proven to be a joke. Mitchum scares young punk Jackie Brown with talk about keeping his word about doing a deal (or risk getting his head busted), but everyone eventually is going to squeal when the time is right, and when options run out. We don’t even really know whose loyalties lie where at the end. Cop Foley and killer Dillon meet at the close-out, dismiss Eddie’s death entirely, and leave amicably. Corruption isn’t even the word for what exists here—this is symbiotic co-existence between “right” and “wrong.” One can’t live without the other, and both accept each other like a pilot fish and a shark.
And once that sinks in, once the grinding sameness of Higgins’ series of negotiations between parties looking for even a scrap of advantage over the other becomes repetitive enough for the viewer to realize this is all there is to lives like Eddie’s and Dillon’s and Foley’s, we get bummed out. And fast.
Yates deliberately eschews the picturesque location work he brought to Bullitt, to lens (in a low-key, grimy, grainy fashion) thoroughly mundane, anonymous-looking locations in the Boston area (strike two for audience vicariousness: no chance to “get lost” in the location work). Yates embraced the “anonymous stylist” label auteur-oriented critics used against him, stating he wanted “reality” and “simplicity” to be the hallmark of his work on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates states not one single studio set was used).
That’s what he achieves to a remarkable degree here. From a visual standpoint, Yates screws down tight anything that might be considered a directorial comment, keeping the framing as seemingly nondescript as his location work (I love how the real banks are located within residential areas—crime is right outside your windows, folks). Action aficionados looking for another French Connection might be disappointed in this deliberately low-key approach to a thriller (there are only two on-screen killings, two robberies, and a humorously-aborted chase sequence), but when a genuinely suspenseful sequence does come up, the tension is that much more acute because we’ve been on edge and nervous throughout the whole movie, waiting for something or someone to blow.
Yates has a nicely perverse anti-Bullitt moment where Jackie, who’s been touting his flash wheels with a Hemi engine, gets shut down in a parking lot before the standard movie car chase (we expect) even begins. The first bank robbing sequence in particular is a masterfully suspense-filled moment precisely because it feels so loose and casual and “real” (and yet is carefully mapped-out visually). There’s an amazing shot where a gunman trains his pistol on the bank employees (who are doing nothing), while Scalise turns his head to look at them, as well, his features grotesque from a Halloween mask, shots that are as strangely compelling as they are, ultimately, meaningless. No one fires a gun, and the bank employees sit quietly, doing what they’re told. It’s a bold strategy for Yates to make a largely actionless thriller—a move that probably cost the movie any chance of being financially successful.
This resolute rejection of most actioner conventions goes to the casting of Mitchum, as well. Mitchum is physically incapable of looking “small” on the screen, but his turn as the ineffectual loser Eddie is a testament to his uncannily accurate choices as a performer. We the audience, seeing that big bad Bob Mitchum is headlining a mob picture, expect him at some point to swing into action, either pummeling some poor schmuck, or drilling an opponent with his rod. But that never happens in The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Eddie warns, through threats, the inexperienced Jackie about the ways to do mob business, but he never acts on them. Throughout the story, Eddie expresses a weary resignation to his lot that never allows for one moment of even delusional hope. Eddie’s death is even more anti-climatic (in terms of action movie conventions). Set up for a drunken ride home from a hockey game by supposed “friend” Dillon, Eddie passes out in the car, never suspecting at any time that Dillon could not only be an informant, but also a killer (there’s beautiful symmetry at work here, comparing Eddie’s first lecture to Jackie, where he talks about how it’s worse knowing pain is coming—his fingers getting smashed—than the actual pain, contrasted with Eddie’s total unconsciousness at the moment of his death) . Yates, denying us even the chance to see Eddie clearly in his final moments, puts Mitchum in the dark corner of the front seat, and lets Boyle shoot him matter-of-factly in the head, the flashing lights of the expressway offering the only illumination—a brilliant use of realistic detail in the service of stylization. That’s it for our “hero,” Eddie. Lights out (of course The Sopranos’ David Chase saw this movie. Many times…).
It’s remarkable that Yates is able to create a resigned mood in the audience where we don’t feel the need to yell, “Wake up, Eddie; they’re going to blow your head off!” By the end, with Yates’ relentless objectivity and his stand-offish refusal to “approve” or side with any of the characters’ actions, we the audience wind up as reconciled and aloof to Eddie’s fate as he and the other criminals appear. Okay, so they’re going to waste Eddie. So what? Like we—and he—didn’t know that was coming?
We’re not even allowed the cliche of feeling sorry for Eddie, either. Sure, he’s a rather pathetic loser who doesn’t want his family to go on welfare. However, if he hadn’t lived a life of crime, he could have had a straight life, and provided for them (something he obviously didn’t plan for when he’s pinched this last time). And any sense that we might feel sympathy for him getting caught in a squeeze-play he totally fails to comprehend, is countered by the fact that he was, in the end, a rat f*ck. He may have looked on his “friends” Artie and Jimmy with some sort of criminal loyalty, but really, as noted in his lectures to Jackie, he stayed in line with his gangster friends because he knew if he didn’t, he’d get beaten up…or worse.
Loyalty’s a joke, ultimately, with these guys: fear of pain, fear of death, fear of jail motivate them. And the minute things get desperate for Eddie, he’s willing to rat them out—only it’s too late because Foley already has the information. There’s no pity for this petty criminal who’s no better or worse than the higher ups who are either using him or ignoring him. It doesn’t matter in the end that the mob thinks he ratted out Jimmy and Artie and that he needs to die, that Eddie’s killed for something he really didn’t do—he was going to do it anyway. Fate just caught up to him quicker. That ultimately we don’t care what happens to Eddie isn’t a commentary on The Friends of Eddie Coyle‘s aloofness, but rather the completeness of its vision—a terrifyingly blank, hopeless vision, at that. Nothing is glamorized here. Nothing is cathartic here. Nothing is resolved here. And nothing, ultimately, is valued here, either. Now watch The Godfather and see how fake it is….
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.