Robert Mitchum gets one of his finest roles in this Boston-set crime drama, now available, for the first time officially on any format, from the Criterion Collection.
Eddie really doesn’t want to go back to the pen. He’s got this case pending up in New Hampshire for hauling some stolen goods, but even a two-year sentence is more than his wife and kids can handle. Eddie’s fifty years old and barely getting by as it is. Several months in prison would put his family on welfare. At best, he’s a low-level hood, with times growing increasingly desperate. Boston’s a tough place and entirely unforgiving. If it’s a choice between working with the feds for a possible reduction in his sentence and continuing to put his neck on the line for little reward or respect, Eddie’s gotta give Uncle Sam a look.
As Eddie Coyle, aka Eddie Fingers, Robert Mitchum got that iconic late-career role all actors of his caliber deserve. Burt Lancaster would do it with Atlantic City, Jack Lemmon was masterful in Glengarry Glen Ross, William Holden elevated Network, and Mitchum had The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Based on the first novel of noted attorney George V. Higgins, the 1973 film was directed by Peter Yates and had a brilliantly faithful adaptation by producer Paul Monash. Higgins favored heavy use of dialogue, a device that really lends itself to the screen when the personnel are this confident in what they have. Yates, who’d already made a weary masterpiece in Bullitt five years earlier and had just previously fashioned a heist film called The Hot Rock, once again uses a skillfully patient approach to the material. The characters in The Friends of Eddie Coyle are readymade, lived-in underling drones marching to a bigger drummer (literally named The Man). Everyone’s a middleman and everyone’s a potential casualty. These are the foot soldiers, not the officers.
While Eddie’s our star, he’s hardly alone. Mitchum is so compelling in the role that it’s easy to forget how often he’s not on the screen. A strong cast of supporting players, some recognizable and some less known, surround him in equally important parts. As Eddie wanders through an aged loser existence, he’s joined by the ironically described acquaintances of the title. These are men who meet by necessity, either cordially for a drink or professionally for a crime. Shady bartender Dillon (Peter Boyle) will prove himself to be remarkably, even distressingly shrewd. A gun supplier named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) carefully bargains with Eddie and drives a hot yellow sports car. We see two bank jobs engineered by Jimmy Scalise (Alex “I’m Moe Greene” Rocco, reputedly a former Boston mobster in a previous life). Then there’s the Treasury Department agent Foley (Richard Jordan), who’s sort of pulling the strings on a couple of these puppets. The more you think about the film as a whole, the less favorable he seems.
By providing little pieces of the story to be gathered along the way, Yates and Monash let the adaptation deliberately entwine the viewer instead of firebombing a plot. The result is lean, with numerous scenes apparently excised, and as starkly grey as the cold Boston air. Few cities can so effectively represent the dissolute mob life with such little glamour. Boston’s tourism bureau can hardly be relying on this film or The Departed or Gone Baby Gone or the various other hardscrabble portrayals it’s had in recent years. The milieu nonetheless feels very specific and, actually, sad. Boston is hardly emphasized, yet it comes across as so depressed and uniquely harsh. The film, like its title character, finds itself leaving the autumnal season with little mind to preparation or caution. Because The Friends of Eddie Coyle so persuasively shows this calloused way of life, there’s an eagerness to assign it some authenticity while still hesitantly accepting that specific world as a compeling but wholly uninviting place. Tour guide Mitchum, nailing a subtle variation of the local accent, gives a transformative and nuanced performance that works in part because it completely forgoes any Hollywood showiness.
In its almost methodical tendency to deprive the viewer of conventional exposition, Coyle is reminiscent of Yates’ Bullitt, a film too often sidled with the “confusing” label but one that unfolds in a style quite similar to this later picture. Both present a situation that’s explained totally but at a somewhat slow pace, and the two films share a similar sense of defeatist nonconformity. Neither is particularly upbeat or interested in appeasing a one-eyed viewer, and they each endorse a conflicted point of view. It’s really not surprising to find Yates at the helm of the two movies. I’d even go so far as to say the tonal similarities tend to boost his otherwise oft-neglected status among the accomplished directors of that era. The British heist film Robbery might be another to explore in that thematic pocket of Yates’ oeuvre, though the Optimum R2 is unfortunately in the wrong aspect ratio. Yates would later find success outside of the crime genre with the acclaimed efforts Breaking Away and The Dresser, but, as with some of the works of a filmmaker like Stephen Frears, these meditations on life, death and professionalism by way of living outside the law are extremely compelling in their own right. The genre implications shouldn’t be a limiting factor when assessing them, particularly since Yates was quite accomplished at avoiding the conventional pitfalls sometimes associated with crime-oriented movies.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is certainly a gem of that lamentably passed ’70s Hollywood cinema. There are perhaps other films in the same vein, but really nothing else that feels so simultaneously quiet and loud. Ideas of film noir, essentially, if inadvertently, put to bed by Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, and where that type of movie went afterward tend to come to mind. Noir icon Mitchum largely abandoned those sorts of pictures as he became a bigger star in the ’50s, but when he returned to more character-oriented parts this decade he once again found himself in noirish places. His turns as Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep are the obvious continuations, but neither is how I really see the progression of film noir. The cycle of noir had a necessary expiration date, and it then became either a template or, much later, a marketing tool. The neonoir that followed was interesting in its willingness to embrace aspects foreign to film noir, notably the use of color instead of stylized shadows, but there’s too often a pastiche quality in the pictures associated with that label. Chinatown may be a masterpiece, but it hardly furthers the specific progression of what was once film noir.
Coyle is sort of a splintering off in another path for the post-noir crime pictures. It maintains a familiar pessimism and the dour, fatalistic sketching of plot. Eddie Coyle is an update of the noir protagonist, molded into a ’70s version of the wrong side of the tracks washout. It’s circumstance that brings Eddie down, but it’s also his chosen life. Mitchum in Out of the Past, the seminal film noir directed by Jacques Tourneur, comes to mind as a suitable contrast with the Eddie Coyle character and others like him in this era of Hollywood. The fate-challenged archetype seen in the sort of genuine, postwar cinematic darkness rightfully considered true film noir logically progresses to a less innocent, withered shell of a man whose morally ambiguous existence has already defeated him to the point of a crushed soul and a circular lifestyle. These later protagonists no longer must struggle with the possibility of attaining freedom from whatever force has led them astray. That part’s over and they’ve already lost. The next step is cinematic purgatory – it’s where Eddie Coyle resides.
Someone can correct me if this is wrong, but I don’t believe The Friends of Eddie Coyle has been previously released on DVD anywhere in the world or even on VHS. Aside from the rare, wrong aspect ratio television showing or odd screening, this is the first time the world has freely been available to see the film. I’m putting the blame as to its unavailability squarely on Paramount’s shoulders. It took the Criterion Collection’s licensing deal, a blessing for film fans everywhere, to finally give this remarkable movie a modern audience. I find it curious that Paramount can release three different versions of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or To Catch a Thief (among many others) on DVD, but still stubbornly refuse to find a place for all of these gems the studio has licensed to Criterion. Movies like Ace in the Hole and The Furies are hardly obscure.
My needling aside, it’s water under the bridge now for the film at hand. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is spine number 475 for Criterion and the label has given it a pretty impressive transfer. Largely free from any damage and consistently put together with a solid level of grain intact, the image is in approximately the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. There’s an appealingly natural-looking aspect to the progressive transfer. Other than Jackie Brown’s lightning bug bright car, colors are respectfully muted and skin tones appear appropriate to the era and place. This is the sort of transfer that could easily be overlooked because it isn’t superficially perfect in that detail hasn’t been rendered with razor sharp precision, but I quite enjoyed it. For the type of film we’re dealing with, you’d probably be overly finicky to expect anything better in standard definition.
Similarly, the single-channel English mono track is quite strong for what it is. The film isn’t really action-oriented and depends heavily on dialogue. This audio offering really comes through nicely in my opinion. Dialogue and the very of its era score can be heard clearly and at an acceptable level of volume. The track is clean of any major hiss or crackle. Some dubbing was done in post-production, evident during outdoor scenes, but it’s integrated with relative smoothness against the various nature and city sounds. Optional English subtitles, white in color, have been included for the hearing impaired.
Criterion tends to charge a higher price point when the film has a commentary track, but that isn’t the case here. Director Peter Yates, a grandfatherly type at 79 years old, recorded a new track for this release, and while this doesn’t quite reach the level of essential listening, I did find myself generally enjoying what Yates had to say. Excepting the double mention of a photograph where Yates and Peter Boyle were both seen reading Higgins’ source novel – a repeat which may have been the product of more than one recording session for the director – the commentary has been edited well and avoids letting the track remain silent for any length of time. Yates immediately takes a minute to recognize The Friends of Eddie Coyle as one of his three favorites he directed (Breaking Away and The Dresser are the others), and that fondness he has for the film remains evident throughout the track. Again, there’s nothing revelatory here, but those who enjoy the film will probably also have a pleasant time seeing it again as they listen to Yates reminisce.
A better than average, though brief, stills gallery is the only other supplement on the disc. Several of the stills shown are taken from scenes that didn’t make the final cut. We also get to read some of Yates’ comments about many of these photos. Even if you don’t typically pay attention to the stills gallery feature, this is one that’s definitely worth the short time to explore.
A nice featurette or vintage piece on Robert Mitchum would have seemed perfect to flesh out the extras, but what Criterion does instead serves as a worthy subsitute. A thick booklet lasts 48 pages and begins with an essay on the film by Kent Jones. The real treat is a lengthy Rolling Stone magazine profile done on Mitchum by Grover Lewis. This is pixie dust in print, fellow Mitchum fans. Lewis was on the set of The Friends of Eddie Coyle and he chronicles not just Robert Mitchum, but also that inimitable mystique that surrounded the actor. Co-stars and crew members are in awe of the movie star, who’s characteristically candid with Lewis. The article doesn’t necessarily paint a glowing portrait of Mitchum, but it does well to further the legend.
There’s downbeat and then there’s mercilessly deadened. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is firmly the latter type of film. An organic star turn from Robert Mitchum finds the actor surprisingly tender and nonviolent, giving one of the best performances of a remarkable screen career. The Criterion Collection receives undying appreciation for fixing Paramount’s mistake by finally bringing this small masterpiece to the home viewer. All the label’s done is provide a high quality technical presentation, a commentary from the film’s venerable director that’s gentle but never lags , and a substantial booklet featuring one of the better movie star profiles ever published. And I can’t thank them enough.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum