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Do you like Robert Mitchum? This is one of the best pictures from the later part of his career.
There are movies in which crime doesn't pay, and movies where crime looks pretty attractive, at least the part with the money and pretty women. This great picture by Paul Monash and Peter Yates will convince all to stay on the straight and narrow, and to avoid any person who carries so much as a taint of criminal activity. It's like quicksand.
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 up Massachusetts way. 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. Although the film's viewpoint is sympathetic enough, its title may be the most ironic use of the word 'friend' in crime film history.
Taken from George V. Higgins' source book, the show examines the dilemma of a petty thief-loser as he scrambles for survival. Boston crook Eddie "Fingers" Coyle (Robert Mitchum) has been running with mob types his entire adult life. Now he's facing a two-year minimum jail sentence for transporting stolen goods. His associates have offered no legal assistance, even though Eddie has stayed mum about his fellow smugglers. A stubborn Irish-American with three kids, Coyle is the kind of guy that 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. Everybody pretends to be up front and honest with the next guy, but in truth it's Every Dog For Himself.
Coyle is a stand-up guy, which among these people is a definite liability. 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 to Coyle. When Eddie informs on an associate, he expects Foley to keep up his end of the deal. Foley instead tells him that, "It's just a start". He'll have to do much more if he expects to stay out of jail. It doesn't matter that Coyle is contrite or that he has a family. Foley's just looking for the fast route to that next promotion.
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?!".His slick bank robberies involve the taking of hostages, all carefully planned to avoid bloodshed. But it happens anyway.
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 skies are gray and everything looks cold. The one chase scene takes place in the parking lot of a commuter train station. Yates uses his keen talent for precise action filmmaking on the robbery and stakeout scenes, but also in every verbal encounter. Never has plain talk in a crime film been so riveting.
These unglamorous working stiffs are fascinating, each thinking he has enough secret puzzle pieces to fool the others. Everybody's strategy is to survive, and since crimes require teamwork trust is an essential ingredient. But every criminal effort is undone by a betrayal. One guy, trapped red-handed and facing a life prison sentence, can't believe it: "You knew! You knew!" Eddie protests, but seems to know that a cold prison cell will be the end of him. The fun has certainly drained away. The party is over and all that remains are the hard choices and a permanent hangover. Poor old Eddie opens up to his pal Dillon, who offers to take him to a game, to get his mind off his problems. This is easily among Robert Mitchum's five best movies.
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 finale is one of the bleakest since the heyday of Loser Noir. It really hangs with one.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The Friends of Eddie Coyle makes a strong impression in HD, with a solid color transfer packed with detail. Forget about those grainy old TV prints. Victor Kemper's unfussy lighting brings out every wrinkle and age spot in Robert Mitchum's weary face. The "twinkle in the eye" sharpness encourages us to study every face on screen, trying to determine which of Eddie's 'friends' is sincere, if any.
With all of the leading actors gone (even the relatively youthful Richard Jordan and Steven Keats) Criterion producer Curtis Tsui makes due with 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,
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