Directed by Peter Yates; produced by Paul Monash
Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is a life-long criminal. He’s not of high rank in the underworld’s hierarchy; he buys firearms, delivers contraband, runs errands. He’s not even a particularly capable crook; he once suffered the punishment of busted knuckles due to purchasing guns that were eventually traced, landing an important mob boss in prison. And now he’s facing at least two years in jail himself for transporting stolen goods. He’s contemplating informing on his colleagues as a means of reducing his prospective sentence. Considering his record of success, this may not be a good idea.
A number of popular actors reach a point in their careers when the demands of fame relax, and they need not take the roles that once were expected from them. In some cases, this leads to a certain artistic freedom - and marvellous performances. By the 1970s, Mitchum was no longer the box-office draw he had been, and he could portray characters different than he had. Thus, he became Eddie Coyle. Coyle is a decent man - for a criminal - a family man, a caring father and loving husband. It is his concern for his family that leads him to consider ratting on his colleagues. Coyle is also a loser, and though he is tough, he is at no point in control of events, however much he tries to be. It is this quality that creates the tragedy that forms the plot.
The title is justified in that we see much of Coyle’s associates, though they are friends in a rather loose manner. All the performances are very good, in particular Peter Boyle, as a bar-owner with hidden skills, and Steven Keats as a gun-seller. The latter actor, in a stand-out movie debut, does an excellent job of making an amoral weapons-dealer into a likeable man. As well, Richard Jordan gives a fine job as a young federal law agent, whose cynical manipulation of the criminals is both infuriating and fitting. (As an aside, Mitchum and Jordan would re-team, after a fashion, fifteen years later as recurring characters in the tv series The Equalizer, filling in for star Edward Woodward, following the latter’s heart attack; I don’t believe Mitchum and Jordan had scenes together in the series, however.)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle’s script is first-rate, unflinching and unsentimental in its portrayal of the ruthless and precarious world of the habitual criminal. The dialogue is natural. I have read criticisms of the casual use of a certain racial slur. That murderers, robbers, blackmailers and kidnappers should upset an audience by calling someone a bad name suggests the skewed times in which we live. But, more importantly, this was how things were. Irish-Americans of that time, especially in Boston and New York, referred to blacks in this manner, and not to use it or, worse, to use a euphemism, would be historically inaccurate and artistically dishonest. This was the milieu in which Mitchum’s character lived.
The movie had the direction it needed, slow and talky in one scene, then anxious and tense in another. Two scenes in particular, the first robbery, and a nocturnal gun deal, are very suspenseful. Director Yates could handle action (eg. Bullitt), drama (eg. The Dresser) and adventure (eg. The Deep), and doesn’t miss a step here. There is limited action, but what there is, is to the point.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an adult film. There is no nudity or sex, and the obscenities are rare - in keeping with the era. But it deals with real characters, people as complex and simple as people genuinely are. I remember dismissing this film (without watching it) as a young man, because it just didn’t seem my type of movie. As I aged, I realised that all types of movies are my type, if they are as good as this one.