Of the crime films coming out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law.
And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five-year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky.
We first glimpse Coyle getting his coffee and slice of pie in an all night diner before sitting down to talk business with the young Turk, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), from who he gets his merchandise.
The punk gives him lip and Coyle has to set him straight with the story about how he got his nickname and an extra set of knuckles on one hand, courtesy of a gun deal gone wrong.
“You can’t trace these guns, I guarantee that,” whines Brown.
“You better, or neither of us will be able to shake hands,” deadpans Coyle.
Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information. What he has to figure out is how to parley it into a get out of jail card without giving away everything he knows and turning into a full-time snitch.
And he knows a lot.
In particular, he knows about the gang of professional bank robbers to whom he’s been supplying handguns sourced from Brown. We see the gang in the film’s opening (led by Alex Rocco – Moe Green in the first Godfather movie – a former Boston criminal underworld habitué), tailing the manager of one their intended targets as he leaves his plush suburban home.
Coyle has other friends, notably Dillon (Peter Boyle), who supplements his day job working in a bar by doing hits for the mob and informing to a cop named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), for 20 dollars a week.
When Coyle discovers Brown is planning to sell machine guns to a couple of criminally inclined hippies, he gives Foley the information in return for the policeman’s promise to talk to the judge about his upcoming sentence.
Foley arrests Brown with the machine guns, then tells Coyle that the judge wants him working on something else before he’ll consider letting him walk on his jail sentence, something to prove he’s rehabilitating himself.
“You telling me they want me to turn permanent fink,” says Coyle, realising the trap he’s fallen into. “Permanent god damn fink.”
“You go someplace and have yourself a glass of beer and a long talk with yourself,” replies Foley unruffled. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”
“I should have known better than to have trusted a cop,” says Coyle. “My own god damn mother could have told me that.”
“Everyone should listen to their mother.”
In his essay for the Criterion re-release of the film, critic Kent Jones describes it as “a succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of Greater Boston area during late fall going on winter”.
It’s a triumph of less-is-more filmmaking. Apart from a couple of quick bank heists and the scene when Brown is arrested in the car park of a large shopping mall, the film is about criminals talking about the process and mechanics of their work, delivering life lessons, sending a man to jail, ordering the killing of another with barely a raised voice between them. Director Peter Yates (best known for the 1968 hit, Bullitt) makes virtually zero effort to explain to the viewer what is going on or who is connected to whom.
With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle. He totally inhabits the persona of an anonymous low life, “a heavy set guy, looks like a Mick,” as Brown describes him.
Supporting Mitchum is a fantastic group of character actors.
Keats’ Jackie Brown is all twitchy paranoia and testosterone in a flash car and funky wardrobe. Jordan is also excellent as a slick cop prepared to cut a few corners to make an arrest. Turning on the charm one minute, twisting the knife the next, he’s easily as ruthless as the criminals he’s up against.
Boyle displays not a shred of personality as Dillon. His barman cum mob hit man is a question mark, a blank slate. He gives Foley the details of the gang who’ve been robbing banks, lets Coyle get the blame, then agrees to kill him at the bequest of some nameless mafia operative, all without a flicker of emotion. His only qualm is whether he’ll be paid up front or not.
“You just get the envelope up here,” Dillon says into the phone as an unsuspecting Coyle sits only metres away at the bar. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The film’s other big draw is the dialogue. Sourced from the book of the same name by George V. Higgins, the script drips with jaded wisdom and criminal ennui.
“One of the first things I learned is never ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” Coyle tells Brown in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. “All you got to know is I told the man he could 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 learned, if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”
“You finished?” says Brown impatiently.
“No, I am not finished. Look, I’m getting old. You hear? I spent most of my time hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinking the beer, eating the hash and hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how I’m gonna to pay the plumber. I’ve done time and I stood up but I can’t take any more chances.”
It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that with friends like his, Coyle ran out of chances long ago.