Treasury Cop Dave Foley: "Everybody oughta listen to his mother."
"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is an ultra-realistic crime drama from 1973 that recently was released on DVD by Criterion Video. It had been quite a while since I had seen Peter Yates' gritty R-rated "film noir" classic. I first saw it sneaking into a restricted movie theatre as a lad, and at the time I was somewhat confused by the way the story didn't allow for the "hero" to bust loose and take down all his enemies the way that 70's movies featuring Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen usually did. These actors also made gritty urban films, but in Robert Mitchum's case he was playing a character closer to reality, closer to the bone of what it was that goes into a real crime figure. I sensed that about the film but i still wasn't pleased on that first viewing. It was only later that I saw how Peter Yates had taken a realistic novel and shot it free of the romance and the daring and gratuitous action scenes that Hollywood movies usually served up then and now. I was pleased to see this little gem holds up well.
The film is truly a look at the seamy underbelly of urban American life. The films features Mitchum as a two-time loser Eddie Foyle, a small-time gun-runner who looking at a long stretch in prison in New Hampshire for smuggling untaxed whiskey across the border from Canada. He's too old to take prison lightly and is not happy with the idea of his wife and two teen-aged kids having to go on welfare. This leads him to try and bargain with the cocky young Federal cop Foley (Richard Jordan) to put in a good word with him with the District Attorney or the judge to get him off from going down for the whisky job.
The problem is that Eddie is small-time, essentially a middle-class criminal who lacks enough clout with the underworld to get information that would satisfy the Feds. Nor do his "friends" in the underworld cares one way or another about him personally--they want his untraceable guns, and he's reliable. But they also know he's about to be shipped off to a Federal cooler and he's in no position to bargain the way he once did.
Eddie's "friends" are not very friendly, and this prevailing sense of hope ebbing away for this "odd man out" is at the heart of the two threads of storyline that run through the film. The other thread are the three bank robberies depicted in the film---all done with a minimum of dialouge and shown in straight-forward detail. Yates work in the British film "Robbery" (1967) with Stanley Baker and Joanna Pettet and the classic "Bullitt" the next year with Steve McQueen all served to give him to assureance he shows in these scenes.
"Film Noir" movies have been a rich part of American popular cinema, and the Boston area--where all of this film was shot-- has sported some very good crime dramas of late. Ben Afflack's "The Town" and Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" being the most recent examples. Each of these films I would say owe something to Yates' spare and minimalistic style of film-making. And to the excellent supporting performances by Jordan and Peter Boyle as a rat-fink hit-man who hints that guys like Coyle are "gentlemen" from the past whose time has run out.
The film is also a testament to how underrated Robert Mitchum was to American film critics and those of his peers who voted out awards to their favorites. Despite the fact that Mitchum is off the screen more than half the time in this movie he dominates the proceedings thanks to scenes like this one below. Director Yates (in the DVD commentary) describes show Mitchum inhabits the role of this middle-aged Boston hood, right down to the stillness and the economy of emotion he puts into this scene where he meets for the first time with fellow gun-runner Jackie Brown (Stephen Keats). Warning: this clip has strong language: