News and Commentary – The Friends of Eddie Coyle
The hardworking staff at Mid Century Cinema recently had reason to revisit the New Hollywood films of Peter Yates. Of the nine features he directed from 1967 to 1977, two stand out as landmarks of the movement: Bullitt (1968) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). We will consider the under-appreciated Bullitt later this year for a “fifty years ago this week” post. (Best remembered for its frenetic car chase, it’s actually a thoughtful movie with something to say.) But we don’t have the patience to wait five years to discuss Yates’ masterpiece, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Eddie Coyle was well-received in its day—Roger Ebert’s four star review summarized the film perfectly with a line that says nothing about the plot: “[It] gives us a man, invites our sympathy for him, and then watches almost sadly as his time runs out.” But critics and moviegoers in 1973 were spoiled by their good fortune—special films were a common commodity during Hollywood’s Last Golden Age, and the generally friendly reviews (Vincent Canby summarized it as a “good, tough, unsentimental movie”) did not then quite grasp its greatness. Forty-five years later, however, it is clear that The Friends of Eddie Coyle deserves a prominent place in the New Hollywood pantheon.
As suggested by Ebert, and following Bertrand Tavernier’s “distrust for the tyranny of the plot,” what is special here is not so much the nominal story—though the movie does serve up a pretty good yarn. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum, in arguably his greatest performance), is a small time operator who specializes in moving illicit goods, such as the untraceable guns that he procures for his friends who like to rob banks (and do so with a certain panache). Unfortunately, Eddie is also facing a sentence for getting caught behind the wheel of the wrong truck—a few years behind bars that given his age and family responsibilities he is desperate to avoid. And so despite his old-school instincts, Eddie looks to cut a deal, seeking out Federal Agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan). But Eddie is out of his league and unaware of much, including that his friend Dillon (Peter Boyle, never better) is also friends with Foley, and not in a way that will serve Eddie’s interests.
The story moves along crisply, as Yates sure-handedly illustrates Hitchcock’s wisdom that each sequence must link essentially with the one that came before it, like one railway car with the next. (This admonition, by the way, is about purpose, not pace, and at no point does the film feel rushed—in fact one of this movie's strengths is the way in which it takes its time.) Nevertheless, Eddie Coyle endures not for its plotlines, but as a model of what the seventies film was all about. Setting the standard for seventies moral ambiguity (no easy task), it suggests that only a razor thin line separates the cops from the crooks. (It is no accident that gun-runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) bears more than a passing resemblance to Agent Foley.) Thus when Eddie bemoans that he “should have known better than to trust a cop, my own mother could have told me that”—the movie nods along in agreement. The film is also an exemplar of the New Hollywood’s search for gritty realism. Shot entirely in Boston, the location work (Yates’ strongest suit as a director, and his calling card), expressing images in washed out pastels and inky night-for-night, is effortlessly naturalistic. Finally, especially of the seventies are the bottomless betrayals (here Eddie Coyle takes its place alongside The Long Goodbye and Mikey and Nicky as essential laments over once unspeakable acts of disloyalty), and, of course, the way in which it leaves the audience empty-handed at the finish. (Spoiler alert: Marlene Dietrich might have had this to say about Eddie’s future.)
One of the pleasures of The Friends of Eddie Coyle is that it invites an appreciation of how great movies are almost invariably the product of great collaborations. This is not to take the film away from Yates; rather, it is to observe that director-driven discussions can sometimes obscure the vital contributions of other participants. In addition to the stellar performances of the players, the streetwise vision of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper clearly shines through. Producer Paul Monash also adapted the screenplay, and although he wisely stayed close to George Higgins’ novel, the adaptation was not passive—it was exemplary. The choices made regarding what to omit and what to retain from the book could not have been better; in several places the screenplay features subtle but significant improvements; still another layer of betrayal is added to the story; and the filmmakers made the crucial and inspired decision to draw on material placed early in the novel to craft the film’s original, final scene (that last conversation between Foley and Dillon). And of course they had the urban poetry of Higgins’ dialogue to work with, which offered a boatload of timeless quotables. Our favorite belongs of course to Mitchum—one of the many wise, world-weary lessons he offers during the course of the film, and one that we routinely invoke: “one of the first things I learned was not to ask a man why he’s in a hurry.”
Eddie (Robert Mitchum) explains how the world works
Eddie should have known better than to trust a cop (Richard Jordan)
Director Peter Yates throws a great bank robbery
Cops and Crooks: Foley with Jackie Brown (Steven Keats)
"I treat a man with respect." Dillon (Peter Boyle) will do it his way.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle