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The success of William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) launched a wave of crime pictures filmed in a gritty documentary style: Badge 373, The Laughing Policeman, The Seven-Ups, Report to the Commissioner. The most critically acclaimed of the bunch is The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a thoroughly downbeat and deglamorized view of the criminal life. There's nothing whatsoever attractive about the denizens of Boston's underworld, caught in a vice-grip between conniving lawmen and a hypocritical criminal code.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle examines the dilemma of a man without options. Boston crook Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) faces a two-year minimum jail sentence for transporting stolen goods; the Mob has offered him no legal assistance. A stubborn Irish-American with three kids, Eddie is the kind of guy who takes his own trash out to the curb. He loves his hardworking wife and doesn't want to see her go on welfare. Lately, he's been putting bread on the table by serving as a middleman between gunrunner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) and bank robber Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco). Eddie's only real pal is Dillon (Peter Boyle), a bartender and unofficial keeper of secrets between hoods. Desperate to avoid prison, Eddie approaches Treasury agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) with the idea of a trade: if Eddie snitches on his friends, will Dave intercede in his case?
The script by producer Paul Monash (based on a book by George V. Higgins) is a tense series of negotiations in which men hide their real agendas. Eddie harangues gun dealer Jackie Brown with a lecture about unnecessary risks: Brown buys stolen Army machine guns from unreliable soldiers and resells them to dangerous fugitive radicals. The cynical Dave Foley pretends to care about Eddie's problems while encouraging him to turn snitch. Only the bartender Dillon offers honest concern for Eddie's legal woes.
Coyle is a stand-up guy but both sides take him for a patsy. Because he has better sources of information, the cagey cop Foley has has no intention of keeping his word. When Eddie informs on an associate, Foley tells him that, "It's just a start". He'll have to do much more if he expects to stay out of jail.
Director Peter Yates (Bullitt, Breaking Away, Robbery, The Dresser) shoots only in real locations, often amid ordinary passers-by; few crime stories seem as rooted in their setting. The one chase scene takes place in the parking lot of a commuter train station. Jimmy Scalise's bank robberies are slick jobs that involve the taking of hostages. Everybody's strategy is to survive, but their criminal efforts are all undone by betrayals.
The rich characterizations are what make Eddie Coyle a memorable crime film experience. Robert Mitchum carries the hangdog look of a man sick of playing the loser. It's one of his very best performances, aided by a convincing Boston accent. Richard Jordan (Dune, The Yakuza) excels in the difficult role of the two-faced cop willing to cheat anyone to embellish his personal arrest record. Peter Boyle is empathetic as Eddie's only buddy; when the chips are down, Dillon offers to take Coyle to a hockey game. Steven Keats makes a fine debut as a cautious hipster who drives an AMC Roadrunner and worries about dealing with unpredictable "amateurs". Alex Rocco (The Godfather) brings personal experience from the Boston streets to his role as the hotshot bank robber. He hangs out in a crummy trailer but likes to show off his sexy girlfriend: "She's a stewardess -- how about that?!".
John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle humanized criminals as men that have chosen "a left-handed form of human endeavor". The uncompromising Eddie Coyle should disabuse viewers of the notion that a life of crime holds any future whatsoever. The film's grim finale is one of the bleakest since the heyday of Film Noir.
Criterion's DVD of The Friends of Eddie Coyle boasts a director-approved enhanced transfer. The show was filmed with a rough, grainy look, especially in night scenes where the emulsion appears to have been "pushed" an extra stop or two. Just the same, it's a beauty compared to original release prints that leaned toward cold, green hues.
With all of the leading actors gone (even the relatively youthful Richard Jordan and Steven Keats) Criterion producer Curtis Tsui makes due with a trailer, some behind-the-scenes stills and an okay commentary by Peter Yates. The veteran English director expresses his satisfaction with the film's locations. He reports that Robert Mitchum refused to discuss characterization but responded positively to director input on the set. Yates also tells us that perfectionist actor Peter Boyle was frustrated that he couldn't draw a proper beer from a bar tap; a cutaway had to be used to get a glass with a nice head of foam.
The best extra is the disc's insert booklet, which contains an essay by critic Kent Jones and a noteworthy Rolling Stone piece by Grover Lewis. Written on the set of the movie, the article covers the production's "interesting" relationship with the Boston Teamsters and star Robert Mitchum's larger-than-life habits: hard drinking, cruel humor and womanizing. Mitchum is also revealed as an undeveloped poet and writer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Friends of Eddie Coyle rates:
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