Sunday, 8 May 2011
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) dir. Peter Yates
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Alex Rocco.
By Greg Klymkiw
The fate of Eddie Coyle, the title character of this grim Peter Yates-directed crime drama, is imbued with such a profound and palpable inevitability that some might wonder what the point of it all is. For those who hang in, the point becomes abundantly clear and is rendered all the more powerfully since The Friends of Eddie Coyle is so sensationally acted, written and directed that it truly doesn’t take long to realize you’re experiencing a classic of the crime genre.
Right from Eddie Coyle’s first appearance – heavy-lidded, baggy-eyed, paunchy, world-weary and shuffling with the gait of a once physically powerful man now consigned to the throbbing aches of late middle-age – we pretty much know he’s doomed. Late at night and under the cold glare of fluorescent lights in a cafeteria-styled diner, Eddie places a slice of rubbery pie and a cup of coffee onto his tray and joins the table of a greasy, long-haired, bug-eyed young thug. Wolfing his pie down between slurps of watery coffee, Eddie’s manner is been-there-done-that, as he negotiates with the thug to purchase a battery of powerful and highly illegal handguns. The thug’s clearly an upstart, oozing bravado and peppering it with promises he has no experience to keep. Eddie sets the thug straight by casually explaining how he got the nickname “Knuckles”. Holding his battered fists in front of the thug, Coyle explains how he has twice the number of knuckles most people have – derived from having his hands crushed as punishment for believing a promise from someone he shouldn’t have believed at all.
But Eddie’s not bitter. It’s business, he explains. It’s The Life – a life he chose in the only world he ever felt comfortable in. But now, Eddie needs a big score and he needs favours. If he can’t get them, he’s headed straight for hard time. His wife will have to collect welfare, and his kids will face the cruel taunts of their classmates for having a no-account dad. More than a miracle, what Eddie really needs are friends, but it’s obvious he has none – at least none he can count on.
Robert Mitchum, one of the screen’s greatest actors, plays Eddie Coyle. Playing everything from cops to cowboys to soldiers and everything in between (including his stunning turns as the evil Max Cady in Cape Fear and the utterly malevolent lay preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter), Eddie Coyle is a role that not only fits Mitchum like a well-worn baseball glove but also is, I think, his best role. He delivers us a man who is a hardened criminal – a marked, desperate man who knows what he needs to survive, even if it means succumbing to the lowest rung of his kind and turning stool pigeon to cops who seem, frankly, no better than the criminals they seek to incarcerate.
As a director, Peter Yates was certainly no stranger to the crime genre when he made The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He’d already directed the Donald Westlake heist picture The Hot Rock, the gritty British-produced Robbery (a realist, almost semi-documentary-styled dramatization of 1963’s notorious “great train robbery” starring Stanley Baker), numerous episodes of classic TV crime series such as Danger Man and (one of my personal favourites) The Saint and last, but certainly not least, Bullitt, the slam-bang Steve McQueen detective thriller that set the bar for all cinematic car chases that would follow. There was always, however, another side to Yates who gave us the gentle comedy of Breaking Away and the tragic gay love story The Dresser. It is finally this combination of the macho stylist and the gentle humanist that made Yates a natural to direct The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
It is these seemingly dichotomous qualities that make the picture so great. Bullitt, for example, showcased McQueen’s baby blues, Jacqueline Bisset’s feminine perfection and a car chase that has seldom been matched. But most importantly, it was the ultimate location picture that stunningly extolled the virtues of the city of San Francisco. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is set in Boston, and the last time I checked, it was and is a city of great beauty. You’d never know it from The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Yates seems to almost go out of his way to show us a Boston that nobody, save perhaps for Eddie Coyle and other underworld denizens of that ilk, would bother to live in. In seedy cafes, dank bars, endlessly indistinguishable parking lots, near-tenement slums, lifeless suburbs, cold, almost Kafkaesque inner city cement financial districts and other equally unflattering locales, Yates and gritty, versatile cinematographer Victor (Dog Day Afternoon, The Gambler, etc.) Kemper train their lens on the non-descript and do so with harsh light or no light and lots of grain.
Paul Monash’s excellent script beautifully distills George V. Higgins' novel of the same name. Higgins, a former prosecuting attorney turned crime writer, always displayed a knack for dialogue that crackled with life and constructed narratives that defied typical crime story structures.
Like the character of Eddie Coyle, the movie seems to have utter contempt for the nasty, brutal crimes committed as a result of Coyle’s efforts. Coyle is peripherally involved as a supplier to the criminals, but Yates and his writers lavish considerable attention and detail upon the various bank robberies that take place – none of which ever directly involve the title character.
And though our “hero” never gets so much as a moment to brandish a weapon, (which is, in and of itself highly unconventional), we are flung back to the reality and inevitability of Coyle’s eventual demise. Yates never lets us forget just how doomed poor Eddie is. Nowhere is this more haunting and downright moving than the heart-achingly tragic sequence where Coyle’s “friend”, the two-timing killer Dillon (Peter Boyle), takes him to a Boston Bruins hockey game, plies him with endless pints of beer and engages in pleasantries, all the while knowing that at the end of the evening, he has been entrusted with the mission to blow Eddie Coyle’s brains out.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Friends of Eddie Coyle as a kid with my ex-cop dad. It was a movie that stayed with me and haunted me for the 30 or so years since first seeing it.
What I don’t think I’ll ever forget was my dad’s response at the end of the movie. “That’s the way it is, kid, that’s just the way it is,” he said to me, with more than a little sadness in his voice, and with many long years under his belt dealing with guys just like Eddie Coyle.
Seeing the movie now, those words still hold true. Only now, I’m able to see Eddie himself, lumbering through the inevitability of his doom – those same words emblazoned, no doubt, on his brain.
That’s just the way it is.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is available on the Criterion Home Video label.