The Friends of Eddie Coyle initially resembles a traditional American crime thriller that’s concerned with bank robberies and the mooks who commit them. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), also known as “Eddie Fingers” for, once upon a time, sustaining a vividly recounted gangland punishment, is a low-level gunrunner for a variety of lifer criminals in and around Boston. He’s one of those crooks who never got too far; he’s still alive, and that’s certainly something, but his anxieties as an aging hood have grown to resemble those of any regular proletariat worker who’s drifting into a forced retirement they can’t afford. Eddie has a wife, children, a cramped home, and he’s potentially about to serve a prison stretch for driving a stolen truck of booze. His dilemma connects, in a fascinating variety of ways, to Dillon (Peter Boyle), a disarmingly matter-of-fact bartender with roots in the underworld, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), another illegal gun supplier, and Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco), a smug and inventive bank robber, to name just a few.
But the tensions that exist among these men don’t escalate in a fashion that jives with the expectations of genre formula, particularly one that typically valorizes outlaws as consumptive warriors of their own domain. Director Peter Yates and screenwriter Paul Monash, adapting George V. Higgins’s enormously influential novel, don’t emphasize Eddie so as to invite the audience’s complicity with him. He isn’t a hero or even an antihero, but merely one of a half-dozen guys who’re struggling to keep their heads above starkly unglamorous waters. The filmmakers spend nearly half the film’s running time establishing basic character relationships, prolonging every bit of throwaway exposition to the point of highlighting a comically tedious element of distrustful negotiation. These men, who can’t handle the confining responsibility of legit jobs, have inadvertently wiggled into a deadlier social straitjacket.
The film is less a thriller than a vivid survey of an ecosystem that exists parallel to the world of traditional working-class Joes. The narrative reaches closure upon its provision of the final key detail as to how this specific habitat is governed. A key character’s death isn’t so much tragic as it is a fulfillment of business as usual, and that character might’ve lived if he’d been willing to betray key associates with greater economy and ease; his death is like a regular middle-class man’s demotion or firing. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is inescapably cold in its rigorous refusal to indulge in the sort of warmly lurid soap opera that pervaded The Godfather or the previous generation’s gangster films that paved the way for Francis Ford Coppola’s epic. But there’s a subtle and tensely coiled element of suspense to Yates and Monash’s work that’s equally unnerving and enlivening.
What Higgins understood, what the filmmakers dutifully preserve, and what subsequently inspired the writing of Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Quentin Tarantino, David Chase, David Simon, and too many others to name, is that people fully express themselves, fleetingly, when talking seemingly idly about bullshit. In a scene that’s heartbreakingly unfussy, Eddie inadvertently reveals his regrets and feelings of loss and failure while briefly mooning over the youth and talent of a hockey player to a preoccupied Dillon. Jackie Brown, who steals the first half of the movie, is a cornucopia of colorful detail and incident. Someone asks Jackie if he’s still trying to write, and he replies that he dropped that when he discovered money. It’s a good, curt line, but it also alludes to the broken dreams that hover over these characters, and it gives Jackie stature. One initially takes him for a clown, but Jackie possesses a poetically down-home sense of self-awareness, which is also memorably illustrated by his line: “This life’s hard man, but it’s harder when you’re stupid!”
Like many future Irish-American crime films set in Boston, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is bathed in funereal blues and blacks that hint at the corrupt demons that haunt the city and, by extension, the country at large; it often appears to be cast in a sheen of gun metal. At times, this aesthetic can be repetitive, too obviously affirming the torment that’s expressed by the dialogue and the characters’ assorted physical carriages. But Yates has a command over the major set pieces that’s sveltely observational. The film’s quiet for a gangland procedural, devoted to the minute processes of pulling off capers and tailing people and ratting them out. One can often hear the ambient sounds (birds, lawnmowers, trains, and so on) of the world that engulfs the characters as they set about pragmatically destroying one another, which offers testament to a larger, ignored system of consciousness. The staging of a pivotal scene briefly, hauntingly crystallizes the film’s sense of workmanlike futility: When Dillon is contracted by an unseen Mr. Big to kill Eddie, he’s framed in the far right foreground of his bar, a phone crooked in his ear. In the far left background sits Eddie, rendered a silhouette by the camera’s placement, confirming him as a phantom long before his demise.
The image is soft at times, particularly in outdoors shots, though this may be inherent to the source material, which doesn’t appear to have been excessively cleaned up artificially. Colors are attractively low-key, which suits the film’s autumnal atmosphere. The blues and browns are vibrant, though the blacks occasionally lack differentiation, which is most obvious in an early drop-off sequence. The grain is somewhat heavy considering some of Criterion’s other restorations, but this suits the film’s gritty milieu and is generally pleasurable to observe. A solid picture overall, but this transfer isn’t a significant upgrade from Criterion’s earlier DVD edition. The clean and detailed soundtrack boasts greater improvement, which is most discernable in the brief, aurally muscular chase and tailing sequences, and in the rendering of David Grusin’s terrific score.
Director Peter Yates’s audio commentary has been ported over from the 2009 Criterion DVD, and it’s a dry, sparse, occasionally informative listen. Yates emphasizes the contributions of the exceptional cast and the on-location shooting in and around real banks, bars, and streets of Boston, which has a lot to do with the film’s unrivaled verisimilitude as a crime thriller. The accompanying booklet features a characteristically excellent review by Kent Jones, and journalist Grover Lewis’s fascinating and superbly detailed on-set profile of Robert Mitchum. But this is still a pretty lean supplement collection, particularly for a film that’s so continually influential. A stills gallery rounds out the package.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a great, beautifully acted American crime drama that chillingly refutes the heightened macho swagger that often dominates the genre. The film is a must own, though this sparse Criterion edition hasn’t been refurbished enough to warrant a double-dip for owners of the prior DVD.