The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Peter Yates

Eddie

    Simply said, Peter Yate’s 1973 film, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is a crime thriller. The problem with stating it so simply is today’s action fans will be disappointed. There are no blow-ups, no action car chases, and no CGI graphics. What “Eddie Coyle” remains, is an unsentimental, uncompromising film about the final days of a somewhat tragic protagonist.

    Eddie is a small time gunrunner with no ambition to be any more than what he is. He is fifty-one years old and facing a two to five years jail sentence for driving a truck loaded with smuggled stolen whiskey. Earlier in his career, Eddie made one mistake, when he purchased stolen guns that some of his associates used in a robbery. The guns were traced by the law costing a couple of Eddie’s “friends” twenty-five years in the slammer. For this mistake, one of Eddie’s hands was smashed in a draw, cracking his knuckles, acquiring him the nickname Eddie Fingers.  “It was nothing personal,” he tells bartender/police informant/contract killer, Dillon (Peter Boyle). Eddie understood why it had to be done. It was business. 

    The film is split into two interweaving narratives, one of which is a straight-laced bank heist movie demonstrating the intricate details of the robberies, something director Peter Yates has perfected over the course of his career. Having previously directed ”Bullitt”, “Robbery” and “The Hot Rock” you might take it for granted that Yates is giving us more of the same. He’s not. The second narrative is Eddie’s story,  a man getting too old for the business he’s in, not wanting to face another term in jail and slowly turning into a stool pigeon.

   eddie1 Robert Mitchum as the doomed Eddie gives one of his most beautiful understated performances. It is a work is equal to anything else in his portfolio. Just watch him toward the end of the film sitting in the nosebleed seats watching the Boston Bruins play. It is a simple scene, yet so perfectly executed scene. He’s semi drunk from too many beers and he suddenly yells out to no one in particular “Number 4, Bobby Orr! The greatest hockey player ever.” It’s a perfect Boston moment at the now gone Boston Garden. Soon after the game, Eddie’s “friends” will take him for a final ride. Though Mitchum is the star, his part is just one of many excellent integrated roles. Surprisingly he sometimes remains off camera for long periods of time, still it is his quiet unassuming performance that grabs you and holds you to the screen.   

    The film is based on an excellent novel, and former bestseller, by George V. Higgins. The screenplay is by Paul Monash who wisely stuck close to Higgins dialogue and storyline. Higgins never acknowledge it but the story is similar to real life Boston criminal Billy O’Brien, an associate of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Like the fictional Coyle, it was feared by his associates that Billy O’Brien was talking to the cops. Billy was silenced, and again like Eddie his murder was never solved. Unusual for an action film “Eddie Coyle” is dialogue driven, there are few violent scenes and when they do happen Yates is very low key, making the film’s ending that much more unsettling.  Tarantino fans should note that Eddie’s gun dealer is named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), a name borrowed by Mr. Tarantino when he turned Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” into his classic crime film.

    Along with Mitchum, the film is loaded with nice subtle performances by some excellent character actors of the 1970’s, from Peter Boyle, to Richard Jordan, Joe Santos, Steven Keats and Alex Rocco. Brit Peter Yates displays a nice affinity for a Boston filled with cold, gray weather. Character’s whose breath is clearly visible in the wintry air. Hangouts of dingy bars and unsavory coffee shops, automobiles that have seen better days. It is all very unglamorous. Still, Boston has rarely been served better on screen than in this low-key crime drama. eddie1

    An interesting story from Kent Jones article included in the Criterion Edition of the DVD is about Alex Rocco who was born  in Boston, Mass. Rocco, who originally went by the name Alexander Petricone, aka Bobo, was very familiar with Bugler and his gang. He eventually left the North East for L.A. changing his name and started a career in acting. The New England mobsters never knew what happened to Bobo until 1972 when they saw him on screen as Moe Green in “The Godfather”

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7 comments on “The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Peter Yates

  1. The Friends is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel that I’ve seen. I’d read the book about a week before getting the DVD and the movie not only didn’t disappoint but actually recreated the sense of suspense that shouldn’t have been there for me with the novel so fresh in my memory.

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  2. Dave says:

    Man… this is one I’ve been wanting to see for so long and with Criterion releasing the DVD, I’ve been holding off on watching it until I come near its year for my Year’s Best Countdown. But after reading your review, I might have to break down and bump it to the top of the Netflix queue.

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  3. John Greco says:

    Sam- I read the book around the time of the films original release and I I remember liking it. That is a rare feat to be that faithful to the book.

    Dave – I doubt it will make the best film of the year, there was just too much competition in 1973, “Mean Streets”, “Last Tango”, “Badlands” to name a few. Then again, it should not be ignored. It is worth watching for the great cast of actors and a wonderful script. After watching Peter Boyle on Everybody Loves Raymond for so many years, you forget the string teriffic performances he put together in the 1970’s. “Joe”, “Taxi Driver”, “The Candidate”,”Hardcore”, “Young Frankenstein” and “Eddie Coyle.” What a run!

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  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Ah, Peter Boyle indeed John! I’m sure you remember quite well his starring role in “Joe,” another movie that would fit in with the period you are covering here. Well, as I stated on another blog, my first (and only) viewing of this film turned out to be nothing special. I found it straitforward, lacking a beginning and an ending and an uneasy seque between drama and suspence that lacked cohesion. Peter Yates was a competant director at that time, but still rather pedestrian. Those were my sentiments in the early 70’s and I voiced them in my college newspaper, where I served as the film critic. But back in those days I had a “reputation” to uphold, and I needed to come down on some films! Ha! Truth be said I did think Robert Mitchum gave a splendid performance in the lead, and the other actors you mention here were fine. And Criterion has released a new DVD set of the film that should ressurect the work for a whole new generation of filmgoers.

    I do remember the dialogue being brisk, as befits a realistic film like this.

    I enjoyed the “Moe Green” anecdote at the end and all the historical and narrative insights, as well as acknowledgement of the Criterion DVD that you have already accessed.

    Terrific and enthusiastic work!

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  5. John Greco says:

    Thanks Sam, – I actually appreciated the film after a second viewing. Like I mentioned to Dave, I do not think it is in the class with some of the other great releases that same year but it did grow on me. I agree about Yates, he was competant and nothing more than that. Give the film a try when you get a chance. I’d like to know what you think afterward.

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  6. Judy says:

    This is yet another one I haven’t seen, John – but, as ever, I enjoyed your review. It sounds good from your description, and I agree with Sam that I also enjoyed the ‘Moe Green’ anecdote. Appearing in a film just might blow your cover!;)

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  7. John Greco says:

    Thanks Judy – Hope you get a chance to see it.

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