Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

"One of the first things I learned is never to ask a man why he's in a hurry. All you got to know is I told the man that 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."

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is an underrated slice of 70's crime drama about a lowlife busher running guns for the Mob who finds out he's facing jail time with no appeal. Torn between turning snitch and preserving his loyalty and integrity, Coyle moves glacially towards his final decision, while unbeknownst to him, the machinations of others, moving quickly and wily, are setting an unwitting trap from which Coyle himself cannot escape.

Coyle is played by Robert Mitchum, who gives a performance full of pathos and gravitas, accentuating the weariness and wariness of a two-bit loser looking to cash out before it's too late. Mitchum understands that for a character like Coyle, there is no time for melodrama. Check out how he keeps his cool here while dealing with a snot-nose hot shot who thinks he knows better. Coyle's message is stubborn and worn, easily dismissed were it not delivered with just the right note of casual menace:

Scenes like this make the film great as Mitchum brings the weight of his entire film noir career to bear on a single character whose flaws embody the path a man would take to get out of a situation he's remained in too long. Coyle doesn't want to turn snitch but he no longer wants to risk jail and he's too proud to see his family end up on welfare. Family still means something to him, even if he seems a stranger to his own children. Having spent a life unhurried and unambitious, he now struggles to turn those instincts on. Mitchum is smart in making Coyle slow but not stupid. He tries to play the odds, find an angle, give up the hot-shot to protect his mob buddies but it all backfires (as it must, the film makes you feel as if its outcome is inevitable).

In between the film's quieter, character moments, director Peter Yates stages a series of ever-escalating bank heists, scenes that drip with tension as the scenarios heighten and unfold. The 70s was a bank heist decade and these scenes while good are also cold, calculated, almost sterile -- the complete opposite of the inflamed passions of DOG DAY AFTERNOON. You are witness here to the clinical efficiency of the Mob, who treat home invasions and bank robberies as jobs only, no passion just purpose. The way Yates weaves these storylines together as counterpoint is brilliant. We don't quite see the connection between these high-stakes hits and Coyle's bleak existence until it is almost too late for Coyle to escape. He is the bottom layer, the mud on the boot. When it's time to sever connections, he's the one wiped off.

The film makes great use of Boston as both a location and a character, relying on the setting to tell a greater story. You learn more about the tight-lipped Coyle from where he lives and socializes than you do from any exposition of character. This is the seedy underbelly of a decaying society (strip malls, bowling alleys, dive bars, diners) juxtaposed with the shiny surface of downtown Boston, City Hall, and the suburban banks and homes the Mob hits. Two worlds difficult to bridge, and to survive, Coyle would have to bridge them, though he is slow, beaten to the punch by Peter Boyle's malevolently underhanded Dillon, a character rich in seasoned mistrust and opportunism. Where Coyle is steady in his habits, easy to set up, Dillon is sharp, quick to sell-out.

Peter Yates had directed several incredible crime films previously, including both BULLITT and ROBBERY. This, however, may be his masterpiece. A grim slice of 70's understatement that languished for decades before being faithfully and lovingly restored by Criterion. All fans of 70s cinema, particularly of the crime and noir persuasion, owe this film a viewing.



Will Errickson said...

Great stuff, pointing out the cold efficiency of the Mob and Mitchum's excellent performance. Lots of good character actors in here too; you should check out Mitchum in YAKUZA if you haven't, which also features Richard Jordan (he played the punk Foley). I loved the hockey sequence! Dying to find a vintage paperback of the original novel.

Christopher Bussmann said...

I just read the novel. It's excellent, way more talky than the film so it's like seeing a different side to the characters revealed.

I've yet to see YAKUZA but look forward to watching it soon.

Burgundy LaRue said...

Just bought the Criterion. I need to watch it soon.