The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1973.
Directed by Peter Yates.
Starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Alex Rocco, Joe Santos and Mitchell Ryan.
After his last crime has him looking at a long prison sentence for repeat offenses, a low level Boston gangster decides to snitch on his friends to avoid jail time.
Eddie Coyle is a small time gun runner for an organised crime outfit in Boston. He knows the game. He knows when to keep his mouth shut and what happens to those who do not. They call him ‘Fingers’ due to an incident with his hand, an open drawer, and someone’s foot closing that draw on his hand. It’s a constant reminder of the life he chose.
We enter the film with Eddie in trouble; caught smuggling contraband and it’s not his first time which means another stretch in jail. But Eddie is 51 years old, he has a wife and three kids in school and likes his life. He’s not about to run, but he isn’t about to turn snitch either and herein lies the brilliance of The Friends of Eddie Coyle for it is a crime film where the crime which really matters isn’t the one which Coyle was caught for, but breaking the code amongst his fellow ‘friends’ and dishonouring himself.
In organised crime the chain of command is long and this film is focused near the bottom, but never less business-like than at the top. Coyle is a broker, acting as the go-between for several third parties usually making a profit; but now he has to make a different kind of deal and leverage insider knowledge for a shot at freedom but this is the last currency he wants to spend. Like Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly from 2012 which was also based on a novel from the same author (George V Higgins) this film is focused on the people who operate within a life of crime, rather than the planning and execution of their crimes. Coyle negotiates on price and delivery dates, another gun runner negotiates with his clients, the Feds negotiate with their insiders and the cyclical world of supply and demand continues. Unlike Dominik’s film, director Peter Yates’ is far more subtle and skilled in the portrayal of crime as a business and less overtly political in its message. There is barely an act of violence yet terror consumes everyone, at all times, even if they can’t show it. The film is an exercise in control and subdued menace.
You should appreciate going into the film there is barely a set piece, and the excitement associated with Peter Yates’ previous pictures Robbery and Bullitt is nowhere to be found here, and although the story does feature two bank robbery scenes of exemplary use of stillness and near silence, the film is character-driven, like all the best crime films are. Think about (and if you haven’t seen these you owe it to yourself to do so) Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick (1973) or Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978) as companion pieces. What a triple bill that would make…
As Coyle we have Robert Mitchum in perhaps his best, most understated performance (think the opposite of his terrifying Max Cady in the original and best version of Cape Fear) and a key role in 70s crime cinema. His use of stillness and barely a gesture shows us a man who is tormented on the inside, resigned to his fate if he doesn’t break his own code, whilst battling self-preservation until the end. The end of the movie is so downbeat and dour, but we knew this was coming just as Coyle does; but seeing Mitchum in those final scenes asleep in the car, not moving, is an actor without ego playing character who is completely expendable. The ending is an as-matter-of-fact a conclusion you’re ever likely to see.
When we learn the truth of who said what to whom, we’re at once betrayed then our emotions are quickly corrected; Coyle would have done the same thing. It’s only business, nothing personal and that makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle genre-defining perfection.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – Follow me on Twitter