Robert Mitchum. I could spend a year blabbing about his roles, his sonorous voice, and the sleepy eyes that read as a cross between a man unaffected and a man who has accepted his fate. I would give a special attention to his album, “Calypso is Like So…”, a musical oddity that is the exemplar of cultural appropriation. I would debate the common wisdom that Mitchum languished in a slew of forgettable tough-guy parts, countering with the handful of classic films he starred in (like Night of The Hunter and Home From The Hill), and his genre-defying status as a noir icon. Before too long, I would touch upon my favorite performance, the title character in Peter Yates’ underrated crime classic, 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Eddie Coyle is the best hard-luck-case on film. Coyle is ten kinds of a loser; he’s a working-class Boston criminal with a looming short-term prison sentence. He bemoans his lot in life, as low-a-level a criminal that ever shambled onscreen. His claim to fame is his nickname, “Fingers”, which he received when the mob bashed his hand in for screwing up (one imagines Coyle has omitted the many screw-ups he encountered prior to the punishment). In terms of crime films, one thing unique to Coyle is he’s not a specialist: He acts as middleman to gun-runners, he’s done some bootlegging; in his younger days, he might have done some leg-breaking or stick-up work. Probably convenience stores. He’s a loser. He’s also a rat.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle juxtaposes three stories: A gang of bank robbers led by Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco), who holds up small outer-Boston banks by taking the bank manager’s wife/family hostage. Gunrunner and young hothead, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), who supplies guns to the robbers, and cop Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), who’s specialty is leaning on criminal informants, especially Dillion (Peter Boyle) and, of course, Eddie Coyle. Coyle bounces around these three stories, acting as middleman between Brown and Scalise, complaining to Dillion about his hard luck and begging Foley-unsuccessfully- to convince the D.A. to reduce his sentence. These are Coyle’s titular friends, none of which reek of prosperity.
It’s an ugly movie, but it’s hard to pin down why. It is not particularly violent, (two people die in the film), though there’s an implied brutality. There is a cynicism to Eddie Coyle; everyone’s a loser, nobody can be trusted, and all the characters are out for themselves. The cop, Foley, is a bully; most of his scenes are spent emotionally torturing either Coyle or Dillion, under the guise of being a friend, basically saying, “I’d like to help you, but…”. Dillion’s dialogue makes him sound like he learned English from a correspondence course. Similar to Boyle’s role in Taxi Driver, Dillion acts like there’s a grand wisdom to his insights, but it’s all nonsense. All the hoods act as if they have no choice but to steal, to run guns, to rob banks. They all look exhausted. They all look poor.
Peter Yates’ best-known film is Bullitt, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle works as a nice companion piece. Richard Jordan plays Foley as “the cool cop” analog to Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, but it’s like Foley tried to model himself after McQueen, and never quite hit the mark. His clothes are cheap, his hair is greasy, and his demeanor is that of someone who thinks he’s a lot tougher and smarter than he actually is. He believes he’s some Bostonian king of cool, but only because he lacks the self-awareness to possess doubt. Though, compared to Stephen Keats’ Jackie Brown, Foley is the cock of the walk.
Jackie Brown spends the movie under the delusion that he’s a master criminal. He drives a lime green Plymouth Road Runner, is always in sunglasses, and has an unerring need to brag about his criminal prowess. He’s another Bullitt fan, but thought the movie would have been better if McQueen was a crook. For all Brown’s swagger, his connections are a pair of inept Patti Hearst-style revolutionaries (who live in the back of a van), wash-up Eddie Coyle, and his two gun-suppliers: a heroin addict and a group of idiot kids who can’t even remember to bring ammunition to gun trade. Yet he concocts these elaborate, multi-step systems for gun exchanges, something he probably picked up from the movies.
Bullitt’s claim to fame is McQueen’s Mustang and the car chase through San Francisco. The Friends of Eddie Coyle has it’s own car and subsequent chase, but done in a style befitting this ode to failure. While the Bullitt Mustang is impressive, that car blends in— Bullitt has a sense of dignity. Jackie Brown’s Road Runner is an eyesore. Its near-neon shade attracts attention wherever it goes, and (much to Brown’s ire) where it goes are spots like a grocery store parking lot. As for the chase itself: the police at a MBTA station’s parking lot surround Brown. Instead of the citywide chase of Bullitt, Brown doesn’t even make it out of the parking lot before being stopped by the cops. In the world of Eddie Coyle, reality does not bend to self-image.
On Boston, Peter Yates captures an authenticity rarely seen. While “The Boston Movie” has practically become a sub-genre of late, The Friends of Eddie Coyle presents the city as an almost-suburb, and not the paradise of Eisenhower era, but a run-down near slum of cheap homes and lost dreams. It’s a Boston of rummy-infested bars, small banks, trailer parks, and candlepin bowling alleys. There are shots of City Hall Square and the Boston Garden, but they don’t reek of glamour, either.
Despite being rarely seen and (until relatively recently) hard to find on home video, The Friends of Eddie Coyle has always maintained a cult following, and is surprisingly influential. A year after it’s release, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry used the same robbery technique, while 2010’s The Town “pays homage” to Eddie Coyle by echoing the bank-robbers style of hostage removal. It’s a foundational text, rarely seen but necessary viewing to learn how to show grit, how to make the crook look like a guy who punches a clock, how to make crime look pathetic. Few of its offspring have ever matched Eddie Coyle’s depiction of desperation, self-delusion and the thorough lack of glamour of the small-time crook. There’s only so much failure people want to see.