Sweet 70’s Cinema: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

With friends like these… that’s the unspoken adage referenced in the title. Eddie Coyle is a washed up criminal; a gun runner, a go to guy for thieves and other underworld types. You need something, you go to Eddie Coyle. But Eddie, played by Robert Mitchum in one of his best performances, is tired and old and is looking at a nickel in the state pen for getting nabbed in a getaway car on one of his pal’s jobs, and he’s taking the rap. He’ll do the time without snitching, like a man. Or will he?

Mitchum’s hangdog face is perfect for this role, and at this point in his career he was best suited to this character. About the only one who could match him would be Walter Matthau, who played a similar type in Charley Varrick. We watch the cops slowly wear down Eddie’s resolve. In the movie’s best scene, Eddie is working with a gun runner named Jackie Brown (where would we see that again?), and explains to him why he’s so careful who he deals with. Eddie’s nickname is “Fingers,” and that is because on one of his first jobs he helped with a getaway car and it ended up being traced back to the guys he was working with, who did time. They didn’t rat him out, but friends of theirs came to him, put his hand in a drawer, and smashed it shut, giving him “an extra set of knuckles.”

He didn’t hold it against them; he understood why they did it. He even says, “the worst part isn’t when it happens. It’s watching, and knowing it’s gonna happen.” The movie’s dialogue has a natural rhythm to it, and isn’t affected “crime story dialogue,” and has no slang or argot and tough-guy talk. While the film is intermingled with the heists and trades of Eddie’s friends, the film is more about watching Eddie slowly succumb to the lure of the detective playing him in.
Peter Boyle plays Eddie’s friend Dillon, who runs a bar when he’s not managing heists and deals. It was working for Dillon that got Eddie pinched- there’s no sentimentality or honor here. “We’re all big boys here.” Eddie knew what he was getting into, and must face the music alone. That is unspoken, and Dillon feels no guilt for Eddie’s family, who will probably go on welfare while he’s in the pen. He is of course more concerned about whether he’ll rat him out or not…
Their conversations should be used in acting classes. Boyle and Mitchum do not merely act, they embody a part. They can both play tough guys without effort; seeing Mitchum with the sad eyes of a man who is being led to the gate of the slaughterhouse, and the machinations toyed with in his mind as he sees an escape route, are all done purely without verbal cues. The same with Boyle; he is a cold businessman of a criminal, mopping his bar with the same hand he aims a gun; it’s all business. There’s always the flicker of fear behind his stony face; he knows he could be in Eddie’s place.
The film’s weakness is the heist sequences in between the drama. Directed by Peter Yates of Bullitt fame, it’s exciting enough, but distracting. It involves a group of bank robbers who kidnap a bank manager’s family and make him open the vault; they’ve hit several banks around Boston, and the cops have no clue. Their guns are provided by Jackie Brown, through Eddie; he’s been having a hard time keeping them supplied, and a couple of kids who look like Squeaky Fromme and her boyfriend with chin pubes want machine guns; an allusion to the revolutionary fervor of the times and groups such as the S.L.A. The film makes great use of the Boston locations, but the movie is schizophrenic, torn between the tense action of the heists, and the quiet contemplation of watching Eddie realize he has only one way out, if that.

It’s rather obvious that this movie was the inspiration for the story Tarnished Angel in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comics; Mitchum even wears a grey suit throughout. That’s one of my favorite comic books, about a small-time super-villain who regrets his past life and tries to make good, despite being trusted by no one. If you think The Dark Knight is the pinnacle of what can be done with gritty superhero stories, pick it up for an eye opener (but you ought to read Watchmen first!). The Friends of Eddie Coyle resembles the real-life Boston mob story of Whitey Bulger, who was about to be ratted on by Billy O’Brien before he wound up dead. Bulger is the criminal kingpin who infiltrated the FBI and the Boston PD, whom The Departed was based on (as well as the Hong Kong cop flick Infernal Affairs, of course). Peter Boyle’s Dillon is supposed based on a young Bulger, who had consolidated power at the time.
The morally ambiguous ending is reminiscent of another 70’s classic, The French Connection, from a criminal perspective. Nobody likes a rat; especially a bigger rat. We know nothing good can come from Eddie’s story; he’s not the kind of guy to pick up a gun and blast his way out of trouble, and he knows what happens to people who rat. We never meet the wife and daughter he’s agonizing over, and this portrait of a small-time criminal is as accurate as you can get. Eddie’s just like any other middle class hustler, except when he gets fired, it’s permanent. If you like Robert Mitchum or the gritty crime films of the 70’s, or modern variations like Michael Mann’s Heat and films like it, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a must-see. It is not currently on DVD but may be released by The Criterion Collection soon; it is viewable on Amazon Unbox and played on Cinemax last month.