The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie CoyleOf the crime films coming out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law.

And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five-year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky.

We first glimpse Coyle getting his coffee and slice of pie in an all night diner before sitting down to talk business with the young Turk, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), from who he gets his merchandise.

The punk gives him lip and Coyle has to set him straight with the story about how he got his nickname and an extra set of knuckles on one hand, courtesy of a gun deal gone wrong.

“You can’t trace these guns, I guarantee that,” whines Brown.

“You better, or neither of us will be able to shake hands,” deadpans Coyle.

Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information. What he has to figure out is how to parley it into a get out of jail card without giving away everything he knows and turning into a full-time snitch.

And he knows a lot.

In particular, he knows about the gang of professional bank robbers to whom he’s been supplying handguns sourced from Brown. We see the gang in the film’s opening (led by Alex Rocco – Moe Green in the first Godfather movie – a former Boston criminal underworld habitué), tailing the manager of one their intended targets as he leaves his plush suburban home.

Coyle has other friends, notably Dillon (Peter Boyle), who supplements his day job working in a bar by doing hits for the mob and informing to a cop named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), for 20 dollars a week.

When Coyle discovers Brown is planning to sell machine guns to a couple of criminally inclined hippies, he gives Foley the information in return for the policeman’s promise to talk to the judge about his upcoming sentence.

Foley arrests Brown with the machine guns, then tells Coyle that the judge wants him working on something else before he’ll consider letting him walk on his jail sentence, something to prove he’s rehabilitating himself.

“You telling me they want me to turn permanent fink,” says Coyle, realising the trap he’s fallen into. “Permanent god damn fink.”

“You go someplace and have yourself a glass of beer and a long talk with yourself,” replies Foley unruffled. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”

“I should have known better than to have trusted a cop,” says Coyle. “My own god damn mother could have told me that.”

“Everyone should listen to their mother.”

In his essay for the Criterion re-release of the film, critic Kent Jones describes it as “a succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of Greater Boston area during late fall going on winter”.

It’s a triumph of less-is-more filmmaking. Apart from a couple of quick bank heists and the scene when Brown is arrested in the car park of a large shopping mall, the film is about criminals talking about the process and mechanics of their work, delivering life lessons, sending a man to jail, ordering the killing of another with barely a raised voice between them. Director Peter Yates (best known for the 1968 hit, Bullitt) makes virtually zero effort to explain to the viewer what is going on or who is connected to whom.

With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle.  He totally inhabits the persona of an anonymous low life, “a heavy set guy, looks like a Mick,” as Brown describes him.

Supporting Mitchum is a fantastic group of character actors.

Keats’ Jackie Brown is all twitchy paranoia and testosterone in a flash car and funky wardrobe. Jordan is also excellent as a slick cop prepared to cut a few corners to make an arrest. Turning on the charm one minute, twisting the knife the next, he’s easily as ruthless as the criminals he’s up against.

Boyle displays not a shred of personality as Dillon. His barman cum mob hit man is a question mark, a blank slate. He gives Foley the details of the gang who’ve been robbing banks, lets Coyle get the blame, then agrees to kill him at the bequest of some nameless mafia operative, all without a flicker of emotion. His only qualm is whether he’ll be paid up front or not.

“You just get the envelope up here,” Dillon says into the phone as an unsuspecting Coyle sits only metres away at the bar. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The film’s other big draw is the dialogue. Sourced from the book of the same name by George V. Higgins, the script drips with jaded wisdom and criminal ennui.

“One of the first things I learned is never ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” Coyle tells Brown in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. “All you got to know is I told the man he could depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I learned, if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”

“You finished?” says Brown impatiently.

“No, I am not finished. Look, I’m getting old. You hear? I spent most of my time hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinking the beer, eating the hash and hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how I’m gonna to pay the plumber. I’ve done time and I stood up but I can’t take any more chances.”

It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that with friends like his, Coyle ran out of chances long ago.


6 Responses

  1. One of those rare films that actually got better over the years. Hard to beat seventies movies for grittiness though.

  2. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about why so many of the crime films that came out of the US in the seventies (and to a lessor degree the UK – think Get Carter) and so gritty and hard boiled. A lot of crime films now are more violent, but most lack something on a more fundamental basis. Maybe it’s the much discussed ‘Jaws factor’ and the impact that film had on US movie making. What do you reckon?

  3. It seems we think alike! I have just picked up the book The Friends of Eddie Coyle and am about half-way through. As I was reading I thought “this must be a movie”, and imdb told me that low and behold it was (Hollywood, for all its faults, does not miss many tricks). What a strange experience it is to read…there is just so much dialogue that my mind finds it hard to compute what the hell is going on at times. But what brilliant dialogue. I am delighted that the film stays true to the ethic of the book, where pretty much nothing happens except people talk about what they have done, what they will be doing, and how they will do it.

    On your point about the 70s…it is a good one. If they remade TFoEC today I am sure it would get the “thriller” treatment where much more focus would be placed on showing events, which would make it very different from the book. On the grittiness of movies I think it is to do with studio bosses giving relatively free reign to directors who committed to a particular vision. In the 70s, as outlined by Peter Biskind in ‘Easy Riders and Raging Bulls’ there was a strange coincidence whereby the studios were run by people willing to give the ‘talent’ free reign and this talent was committed to storytelling. In this environment Scorsese made ‘Mean Streets/Taxi Driver’, Friedkin made ‘The French Connection’, Coppola made ‘The Godfather’s/The Conversation’, Polanksi made ‘Chinatown’, and Peter Yates did ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’.

    The 70s really were the best time for crime movies since the 40s with the studios somehow allowing directors to focus on the stories and characters without the need for huge amounts of action. Jaws (and Star Wars) changed all that for the worse unfortunately. They don’t make ’em as hardboiled as that anymore. I also think that the 70s are inherently gritty when visualised….the cars, the clothes, the ideologically run-down and disjointed reality of people living in the post-60s. This is still sometimes achieved in modern films set in the period such as ‘Red Riding’.

  4. Eddie Coyle is a genuine masterpiece!

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