• The Friends of Eddie Coyle:
    They Were Expendable

    By Kent Jones

    1089_208

    “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.

18 comments

  • By Keith Enright
    May 19, 2009
    02:21 PM

    Wow. I'm sold. Off to the store I go.
    Reply
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  • By Chris Provost
    May 19, 2009
    03:01 PM

    I love love love this movie. I'm so happy today! I've been waiting years for this to come out on DVD! Thank you Criterion!
    Reply
  • By William Messinh
    May 19, 2009
    06:59 PM

    Perhaps not Mitchum's best performance, but close to it. Out of the Past, Fire Down Below are perhaps stronger on his part. But when I first saw this film in 1973, I was living in Boston and its realism was a knockout! I will never forget Mitchum's final line: "Number Four, Bobby Orr", what a future he has.
    Reply
  • By LAURIE CUBBER
    May 23, 2009
    08:44 AM

    Great movie. Great read. Also recommend reading the book.
    Reply
  • By JP Gill
    May 28, 2009
    04:28 AM

    Yes. A true, gritty classic. Makes sure you enable Peter Yates' very insightful director's commentary - in particular, the last scene where he totally lances the modern film maker's comeplete oversue of the so called stylized, "hand-held shot".
    Reply
  • By James Tetreault
    July 02, 2009
    10:17 PM

    One question I had is the length of the film. I remember reading a comment from Mitchum to the effect that it was a good movie but that they'd left a great one on the cutting room floor. So, I assumed that there might be some interesting deleted material that would surface with this DVD, what with it getting the Criterion treatment and all. But I thought the version seen on tv up till now was also 102 minutes.
    Reply
  • By rowan
    August 17, 2009
    12:22 AM

    Awesome film. Understated and muted palette. Mitchum is amazing!
    Reply
  • By Dutch Schultz
    December 13, 2009
    10:43 AM

    I consider "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" movie superior to The Godfather I and II, and slew of other 70's crime classics. "...Eddie Coyle" is satisfying in so many ways, it deserves a wider, broader audience and should be hailed as an Event, a Lost Classic Rediscovered and should be hailed as the Best of the Best Hollywood Has Ever Produced. Both legendary and real, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is also a great movie from the Second Golden Age of the 1970's Cinema, but an institution for the budding screen writer and filmmaker, and actors alike. Dig the music sound track.
    Reply
  • By Walter
    January 06, 2010
    08:19 PM

    Just a wonderful 'appreciation' of a classic. Thank you. Higgins still lives as an inspiration to writers everywhere. Elmore Leonard had the line, when he read the book, 'So that's how you do it.' I drove past the huge multiplex on Route One north of Boston the other day. There were 22 movies on the bill and I don't think I recognized 20 of them. I am completely disconnected from modern cinema yet love movies and the art, realism and truth of 70s movies. Even a average release from the period is so far superior to today's 'product' it's not even funny. And a film like Friends of Eddie Coyle towers over the rest.
    Reply
  • By Steve Baldwin
    March 16, 2010
    09:36 AM

    A great review of this classic was posted this week over at NYTimes.com; the URL is http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/03/15/movies/1247467299989/critics-pick-friends-of-eddie-coyle.html I saw this film years ago but had forgotten its greatness. Fortunately, one can download it and view it for a reasonable fee over at Amazon.com. This is one picture I'll watch and study many times - it's a masterpiece.
    Reply
  • By Dan Mullen
    May 09, 2010
    01:36 AM

    We just rented the Criterion issue of The Friends of Eddie Coyle and were blown away. Bravo for releasing this masterpiece and introducing this obscure classic to a new generation of film lovers.
    Reply
  • By Will Shorr
    November 29, 2010
    04:47 PM

    Having grown up in Worcester I wish more of these classic Boston Based (Mass- Based) Crime films would have included filming and some setting in Worcester! I know, I know all the jokes of boring and nothing that may come about, but Worcester was (and I believe still is) the second most populated city in New England! I mean Providence isn't even close, but because of the patriarca family and it takes up all of Rhode Island it gets big billing in certain films and T.V. Crime shows! Worcester had plenty of political corruption and was provincial enough to at least be included! I mean Sharon and Randolph?? You have got to be kidding! The seven Hills Plaza in Worc would have been better for that arrest scene in Friends of E.C.!
    Reply
  • By Will Shorr
    November 29, 2010
    04:57 PM

    Oh on that "Number Faw Booby OWW" Line that Mitchum does indeed do great, it should be pointed out that Orr and the Bruins had already won 2 Stanley Cups and his career was beginning to slip because of horrible Knee injuries at the 73 realease of the film. Especially if the veiwers identfy that setting as the fall of 73, Orr was a couple years away from being traded to the Black hawks, (Ironiclly the opponent in the film) and to the eventual retirement! I did love the camera shots at the Hockey game though. It really added to the suspense as at one point it even appered that the Chicago Goalie was glimsing at Dillion and the kid after Dillon said " Everyone's looking at Bruins, no one is going to pay attention here" I don't know if that was intentional by the director, but I thought that was quite nice!
    Reply
  • By Mark Coonan
    December 27, 2010
    04:56 AM

    I moved from the east coast to Chicago in 1966 when I was 14, and within a couple of years was about as deep into the criminal life as the characters in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," which I saw in 1973-74 when I was serving my first adult prison time, a year at the Indiana State Farm. By late 1975, I was back in again with five years and Life. Things changed for me then, or should I say, I changed things for myself and those in my environment from that time on. I finished a GED and eventually a baccalaureate degree; became a political and educational leader in the prison system; reconfigured the state's student financial aid programs in federal court, such that the small off-campus college program I managed burgeoned into the largest program in the prison system, then burgeoned into a statewide program that that allowed prisoners to receive time reductions for program completions; negotiated work stoppages, various disturbances, and an 18-hour hostage negotiation (in the wake of which I ended up having to walk a fine line of cooperating with the US Justice Department/FBI in their investigation of allegations of human civil rights violations against inmates by prison staff); and was finally released in 1990 after I had my sentence reduced through the courts, with the blessing of the department of correction who, albeit without rancor, were as anxious to have me gone as they formerly to keep me. I worked in substance abuse programs and juvenile correctional facilities after I got out, and from 2000-2006, worked full time in multiple adult prisons throughout Indiana as an itinerant university teacher, teaching special topics courses in critical thinking, developing a written voice, and film criticism. It could be said, I suppose, that I've lived a bit of the lives of every one of the key characters in the film, as well its creator and the filmmakers who worked it into such an extraordinarily spare but powerful dramatic narrative. Implausibilities or lapses in verisimilitude don't sit well with me; hence my high regard for "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." Not having seen the film in so many years, I really have nothing to add to Mr. Jones's excellent critical review. I will say that the thing that struck me originally, and has stayed with me all these years is the sharp distinction between the personae of Eddie the street criminal and Eddie the family man. His wife and child are clearly and genuinely his priorities, yet he has worn that other mask for too long to just put it aside without losing more of his essential self than he can afford. In that sense it's progressed from being a means to a conditional relationship with his social environment to a fatal determinant beyond his control.
    Reply
  • By Kevin Boyle
    February 04, 2011
    12:28 AM

    I just used the first chapter of Higgin's book in a literature class. It is an excellent example of plot driven by pure dialogue. I also showed the coffee shop scene from the movie. The students loved both and I am sure there are some new fans of the film. Mitchum and Keats are so good in this scene. Mitchum came from my home town, Bridgeport, Connecticut.
    Reply
  • By ADM
    March 02, 2011
    05:41 AM

    This is a great movie. Mitchum's character struggling, only to die in the end. As Kevin Boyle stated, it was driven by pure dialogue, some of which was just as frightening as pure action. I grew up in Walpole and the scene at the plaza in Dedham is very familiar. I used to shop at the Lechmere store that you can see in the distance and the long closed Hersey Products water meter company, where my father worked, was about a half mile away.
    Reply
  • By Kathy
    September 26, 2011
    09:49 PM

    I love this movie. I thought Steven Keats was brilliant as Jackie Brown and remains one of my favorite actors of all time. I hope Criterion re-releases the DVD with even more behind the scenes pictures and also with the deleted scenes (pretty please!) , such as Jackie Brown after his arrest at the station with Richard Jordan, among others. Anyway, I highly recommend 'The Friends of Eddie Coyle' for anyone who has not seen it. Love the music too. P.S. Don't forget to read the book! ;)
    Reply
  • By JP Giuliotti
    March 30, 2012
    02:56 AM

    I produced and starred in a tribute project to this great film. Copy and paste this link to the playlist (2 recreated scenes, 1 trailer, 1 behind the scenes photo shoot with original music composed as a tribute to David Grusin - did the score for the original film.) Hope you like it! I also recorded an exclusive, one on one interview with Alex Rocco who played Jimmy Scalise in the film. It is on the project DVD. I may post it eventually to the youtube project. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIRWsLiDixg&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=SP8171861DD8577ACA
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