As esteemed film critic Kent Jones explains in his excellent Criterion essay, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is “an inside job”. Although this heist movie is sprinkled with two stifling bank robberies and a frenetic parking lot double-cross, director Peter Yates (who got in an early career best directing Steve McQueen in 1968’s Bullitt) manages to cause a stir in the film via an introverted look at old-timing gangsters and the new wise guys.
Robert Mitchum is the titular Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle. A lifelong middleman gangster, he earns enough bread to keep his wife and two kids at home sweet. Needing to get his quick hands on thirty guns for a friend’s big bank robbery job, he gets mixed up with bigmouth gunrunner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats). Whilst the heists go accordingly, ears are burning in the Boston underworld. At risk of heading back into jail after being caught drug smuggling, Coyle breaks the outlaws’ code of conduct and grasses the names of his friend’s to the nuisance detective, Agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) in a desperate attempt to keep his name in the clear. But the ears of the Boston Mafioso are burning and soon Eddie looks like he’s in for white-knuckle trouble.
Lifted from the George V. Higgins novel (which is also very good, FYI), screenplay writer Paul Monash manages to get some authentic swagger in the perfectly timed, heavy dialogue sequences, like when Detective Foley suggests to Coyle that “everybody oughta listen to their mother”. It not only had me in stitches, but managed to validate and humanise everyone’s greasy fingered pursuit.
There’s some great, beaten up performances here from some forgotten American greats. Peter Boyle is dynamic and unpredictable as the shifty local barman, and Coyle’s only friend, Dillon, whilst the ruffled Steven Keats makes his feature debut as the gun smuggling Jackie Brown (ahem – namedrop!). Best of all, and perhaps unsurprisingly, is Bobbie Mitchum as the titular character. Slurring his way through a pitch-perfect accent (a rare attempt, throughout his career), the once loveable Hollywood rogue is clearly relishing the opportunity to become it’s downtown elder statesmen. With flecks of grey, a looming hunch and wise, baggy eyes, Mitchum’s depiction of Coyle as a man looking for rope is laconic, yet expressively wrought.
It does have the same congested air of gritty Blaxploitation features like Super Fly, only the survivalism tactics exist now in a typically white, Boston vein. There’s no moral judgement. The characters we expect to be pure evil are the do-gooding nice guys, whilst the meek prove the quickest to stab someone in the back. Unpredictable, and even with a few bum-note exchanges, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a nuanced, melancholic portrait of the distinctly unglamorous American underworld.
PS – Please do check out Kent Jones’ essay on the film over at Criterion. He writes so passionately, eloquently, and should be an inspiration to us all.