Played by Robert Mitchum in the full slump of his iconic weariness, but without an ounce of heroism, Eddie Coyle is a small-time 50-year-old Boston ex-con whose slim chance at any future depends on gaming his upcoming sentencing for a stolen-liquor rap in New Hampshire. Coyle never throws a punch or brandishes a weapon, and when he threatens a gun dealer for trying to alter the terms of their agreement, it’s not with machismo, but with irritation at a young turk who doesn’t know the code: “Don’t ask a man why he’s in a hurry.” After he was stuck in mid-career neutral doing standard war pictures and flat epics, The Friends of Eddie Coyle restored some juice to Mitchum’s career by putting his famously subdued manner in the service of grittier New Hollywood fare and proving that he could play a defeated small man while retaining his compulsive watchability and gravity. As a loser, he fills scenes with stolid, semi-resigned desperation.
But Mitchum doesn’t remotely overshadow the film’s first-rate ensemble of character actors. While the screenplay somewhat streamlines the puzzle-like structure of George V. Higgins’s assured crime novel, director Peter Yates shifts from one uneasy conversation scene to another between players in Eddie’s milieu: the detective (Richard Jordan) who extracts tips from a menacing Irish-wiseguy bartender (Peter Boyle) for $20 a week, a gang of bank robbers (led by Alex Rocco) whose fate will be tied to Coyle’s, amateur buyers, and hopped-up suppliers. The titular “friends” is a representative sour joke; survival makes friendship unthinkable, or as Steven Keats, memorable as the properly paranoid, arms-dealing Jackie Brown, tells a client as he holds him at gunpoint, “This life is hard, man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.” (Given the eyesore that is Jackie’s souped-up chartreuse car, being tasteless apparently isn’t judged an impediment.) The movie’s witty, no-nonsense word-jazz is mostly lifted from Higgins’s book: Mitchum’s opening negotiation with Keats in a coffee shop (“Ever hear bones breaking? Like a man snapping a shingle”) and Boyle’s musings to Jordan on the ubiquity of pigeons add color without strain, hitting the ear like Mamet crook-talk stripped of the studied minimalism.
British-born Yates, who had his first Hollywood success in the far slicker Steve McQueen policier Bullitt, keeps his eye on the low-end thieves’ nocturnal creepings and daily roostings in grungy bars, diners, trailer parks, and bowling alleys. It’s a slug’s-eye view of autumnal Greater Boston, remote when not sleazy; even when Mitchum and Boyle attend a Bruins hockey game, it’s in the nosebleed seats. Yates’s approach is most humdrum in the fairly pedestrian bank holdup sequences, with little help from Dave Grusin’s routine caper-score noodling, and in an unconvincingly semi-sunny glimpse of Coyle’s home life. But while the plot’s cops n’ robbers suspense rests mostly with Keats’s tactical evasions and Jordan’s stoolie-greased busts, this bleak sleeper’s corrupt but pathetic soul is in Mitchum’s sighing, worn form sitting at the end of Boyle’s bar: “If you were to ask me, I’d have to tell you I’m not having a very good day.”