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.
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.
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”