“I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality,” said Robert Mitchum of the novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle and its author, George V. Higgins. Yet he could have been describing the film itself, a melancholy succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of the Greater Boston area during late fall, going into winter. A middleman bargains with a gunrunner, the gunrunner bargains with a pair of wannabe bank robbers, a cop bargains with his stoolie, and the stoolie bargains with the man who works for the Man. The chips on the table may be machine guns or information or money, but the “humor” looming over every encounter is survival.
Politeness and bonhomie are strictly provisional, and everybody knows it, which is what gives this film its terrible sadness. In the miserable economy of power in Boston’s rumpled gray underworld, Eddie and his “friends” are all expendable, and the ones left standing play every side against the middle, their white-knuckle terror carefully concealed under several layers of nonchalance and resignation. There’s not a punch thrown, and only two fatal shots are fired, but this seemingly artless film leaves a deeper impression of dog-eat-dog brutality than many of the blood-soaked extravaganzas that preceded it and came in its wake.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is, in many ways, an inside job. Meaning that there’s not a minute spent orienting the viewer. The tale of a low-level mobster who gives up one of his contacts in a failed effort to bargain his way out of a New Hampshire prison stint is imparted to us a little bit at a time, through a series of seemingly affable but quietly desperate sit-downs between criminals and cops, or other criminals, in crummy coffee shops, underpopulated bars, and public spaces that give new meaning to the word ordinary. The filmmakers never do anything in the way of rhetorical underlining.
Director Peter Yates, born and trained in England and mostly known at this relatively early point in his career for his 1968 film Bullitt (and, to those fortunate enough to have seen it in the States, for the excellent Robbery), was an interesting choice for this material. Like that Steve McQueen classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an all-action experience. But two crisply executed bank heists and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside, the kinetic excitement here is sparked by the verbal and gestural rhythms between the actors as they plead for their lives across dingy Beantown tabletops. Yates’s camera eye stays so casually observant and his cinematic syntax so spare throughout that when he finally retreats to a plaintive distance in the aftermath of the film’s one inevitable tragedy, it packs a considerable punch. At which point, Dave Grusin’s score, the busiest thing in the movie apart from the gunrunner’s patterned shirts and canary yellow muscle car, finally settles into a plangent farewell.
Offhanded fatalism is embedded in every word of every exchange, each of which alternates between hide-and-seek games and verbal tugs-of-war. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an extremely faithful adaptation (in structure, spirit, and flavor) of the first published novel by the Brockton, Massachusetts–born Higgins, whose career as a United States prosecutor and then big-time criminal defense lawyer (his clients included Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy) coincided with his ascendancy as a novelist, and whose dialogue is one of the glories of American literature. “I’m not doing dialogue because I like doing dialogue,” Higgins once said. “The characters are telling you the story. I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it. If I do it right, you will get the whole story.” What is remarkable about the film is the extreme degree to which Yates and the producer and writer, Paul Monash, adhere to Higgins’s aesthetic, banking on the contention that if you render the action among the characters as faithfully as possible, their entire moral universe will be revealed.
And so it is. “Look, one of the first things I learned is never to ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” says Robert Mitchum’s Eddie to Steven Keats’s inappropriately relaxed arms salesman, Jackie Brown (guess who’s a fan of this movie), in what might be the film’s most emblematic bit of table talk. “All you got to know is that I told the man he can 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’ve learned: if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.” As in every good dialogue-driven film, talk in The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals action. In this case, maneuvering for leverage and self-preservation.
Nothing could be further from Higgins’s full-immersion approach to fiction than a collection of prima donna thespians vying for attention; thankfully, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a true ensemble piece if ever there was one. It’s amazing that a star of Robert Mitchum’s caliber even considered this movie (he was originally offered the role of the bartender); that he integrated himself so fully into the ensemble and the working-class Boston atmosphere is some kind of miracle. Mitchum is on-screen for roughly half of the movie, and never for a moment does he or the filmmakers play the movie star card—no special isolated “moments,” no hammy overplaying or sneaky underplaying. Golden-age Hollywood’s most notorious bad boy arrived in Boston ready for action on every front, as amply chronicled by Grover Lewis in his Rolling Stone profile “The Last Celluloid Desperado.” Apart from the usual shenanigans (think blondes and booze), Mitchum went right to work, getting an “Eddie Coyle haircut” (which might have been executed with a lawn trimmer) and allegedly hanging out with the notorious Whitey Bulger, the prototype for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, and his Winter Hill Gang. Higgins was worried, Mitchum was unfazed. “It’s a two-way street,” he told Lewis, “because the guys Higgins means are associating with a known criminal in talking to me.” Apart from a few slippages here and there, Mitchum mastered the exceptionally difficult Boston accent. More importantly, he found the right loping rhythm, the right level of spiritual exhaustion, the right amount of cloaked malevolence. If Mitchum betrays anything of himself as Eddie, it’s his sense of poetry, which, for roughly three-fourths of his career as an actor, seems to have manifested itself off- and not on-screen. But when he rose to the occasion, he was one of the best actors in movies. Thinks like a poet, acts like a jazz musician, hitting on the perfect melancholy chord progression from his initial appearance and playing quietly dolorous variations right to the end.
Of course, he’s surrounded by a beautiful array of character actors, many of whom have faded from memory over the years. Richard Jordan as Agent Dave Foley, decked out in leather and a hip haircut, with his usual pungent combination of sweet and sour. Peter Boyle’s bartender, a swaybacked, bald-headed giant in jacket, V-neck sweater, and open-collared shirt, cultivating an air of relaxed barroom stoicism as he mentally angles his way through every difficulty. The unhealthy looking Steven Keats as Jackie and the unhealthier looking Jack Kehoe as his connection, decorating the film with their peculiar brands of hopped-up intensity (well oiled and dry as dust, respectively). The smooth-skinned and bullet-headed James Tolkan, a Lumet favorite, as the messenger boy for the Man (“The Man wants him hit . . . tonight!”). Iron-haired and square-jawed Mitchell Ryan, one among an army of unhinged authority figures in early seventies cinema, doing a walk-on as police brass. Joe Santos of the sunshine smile, who later made a name for himself on The Rockford Files, as a member of the bank heist crew. His partner is played by Alex Rocco, and if Rocco appears to live and breathe his role as a low-level criminal, that’s because he came into this world as Alexander Petricone, Boston born and bred, and otherwise known as Bobo. Petricone worked on the fringes of the Winter Hill Gang and then skipped town for Los Angeles, where he took off weight, changed his name, converted to the Baha’i faith, and started a career in acting. The legend goes that Bulger and his crew never knew what had happened to Petricone until the night they went to see The Godfather, in which their old friend made a splash as Moe Green, the Las Vegas kingpin who takes a bullet in the eye. These actors, then in their prime, now signify a lost era. Many are dead—Boyle after a brilliant and successful career, the Harvard-educated Jordan far too early from a brain tumor, Keats by suicide before he turned fifty. All of them worked hard at their craft and put flesh and muscle on an entire era’s worth of movies. With the notable exception of Boyle, few ever found roles as good as the ones they played here.
For someone who was a thirteen-year-old movie fan when The Friends of Eddie Coyle came out, it’s a haunting experience to look again at these actors, still up-to-the-minute in my time-bound memory. When we weren’t paying attention, they each slipped like ghosts into a past that, from an official vantage point, now seems as distant as the Civil War. The conditions that allowed for movies as spare and melancholy as this one are long gone—very few current American moviemakers find it possible, or even desirable, to leave their action so unadorned. It’s strange to remember that the seemingly loose, but actually rigorous, style of naturalism practiced by Yates and Monash and their brilliant cast was as tied to the modernity of its own moment in time as the CGI-driven epics of today are tied to theirs. On another level, for those of us who grew up in Massachusetts, the film now functions as a time machine. With a few exceptions (Starting Over, The Verdict, The Departed), the city of Boston has rarely been as well served in movies.
Young film fans raised in the multiplex era might look back and lament the fact that no one is making movies like The Friends of Eddie Coyle anymore. The truth is that they never did. There’s only this one.
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. A film he directed and wrote with Martin Scorsese about Elia Kazan is forthcoming.