I obviously need to acquaint myself more with director Peter Yates, which I quickly learned as he says in his commentary The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of his three favorite films he directed. The other two are The Dresser (1983) and Breaking Away (1979), both of which I have never seen. The only other Yates feature I have seen is the celebrated 1968 Steve McQueen starrer Bullitt, and I would say Eddie Coyle is far more interesting than that feature, but I have a feeling some may disagree entirely considering Bullitt is most well known for its action, while Coyle is a good watch despite its action sequences.
Starring Robert Mitchum in the best performance I have ever seen him in, Eddie Coyle is based on the novel by George V. Higgins and made its theatrical debut over 30 years before modern audiences were introduced to the Boston crime scene depicted in The Departed and Gone Baby Gone. But that isn’t to say one is like the other, even if the included Kent Jones essay with this Criterion release says Mitchum was allegedly hanging out with the notorious Whitey Bulger who served as the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed as Mitchum set out to nail the Boston accent and get himself acquainted with the lifestyle.
Eddie Coyle shows a different Boston than we see in The Departed. This film takes place in some of the least attractive sections of Boston, but that isn’t to say they are uninteresting. In fact it is quite the opposite as all of the film was shot on location, including the bank heist scenes, which really caught me off guard when Yates drops that nugget.
The film centers on Mitchum as a small-time gunrunner and go-between man named Eddie “Fingers” Coyle. We learn Eddie has never been a big timer and has worked on the outside, but has always made himself available whether it is guns or driving a truck, the latter of which motivates this story. While Eddie still makes his money in the criminal racket he is facing time up in New Hampshire and if something doesn’t happen he’s going to find himself in prison and his wife and kids will be looking at welfare.
The word “friends” in the title is obviously a loose interpretation of the word when dealing with criminal associates, but it becomes increasingly important as Eddie needs to figure out where his loyalties lie. A good word up north could perhaps get him off the hook and out of a jail sentence, but the price would involve setting up his “friends.” What is a man to do?
As I said earlier, this is the best I have seen Mitchum, but that comes with a footnote. Even though Mitchum has starred in over 100 films I have only seen a handful of them. Of course those include the likes of The Night of the Hunter and El Dorado, but I really didn’t have much of a liking for his acting until seeing him here and I realized it takes seeing him in more than one role to realize how versatile an actor he is, and how you need to get to know Mitchum as much as you need to know his characters. Between Eddie Coyle, Night of the Hunter and El Dorado you are watching an entirely different man, but it isn’t a man that blends into the background. Mitchum’s characters pop off the screen either in their subtlety or in their eccentricities. In Eddie Coyle it is a far more subdued performance, but you can’t take your eyes off him, especially as the desperation of his situation continues to beat him down over the course of the film. It’s Mitchum’s performance that lulls you into the plot that is unfolding without looking beneath the surface, making for a fantastic ending.
Along with Mitchum, Eddie Coyle contains excellent performances across the board. A couple of note include Steven Keats as Coyle’s energetic arms contact Jackie Brown who’s an excellent counter to Mitchum’s performance and Peter Boyle’s towering presence as a well-connected bartender has a soft-spoken menace about him.
Eddie Coyle isn’t entirely perfect, however, it could have done with a little trimming. I couldn’t help but feel the 102-minute run-time could have been cut all the way down to 90 minutes or so by eliminating some of the action based scenes or at least cutting them down. As much as they work on their own this film isn’t about the action, it’s about Eddie. Strangely enough the bank heist scenes are less interesting than just the quiet moments of dialogue. As Jones says in the same essay I referenced earlier, “Talk in The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals action.”
As far as this Criterion presentation goes, the film has been cleaned up and looks fantastic. It has that classic ’70s grit that perfectly fits the genre and the mood of the feature. The audio is the original mono track and I don’t think it would have benefit the film in the slightest if it had been enhanced to 5.1 surround.
The supplements are minor and include a stills gallery and a commentary from Peter Yates, which was recorded in 2009. Yates will turn 80 this July and his commentary is definitely a bit shaky and representative of that fact, but that doesn’t mean it is any less informative. My favorite moment is when he says he almost had Quincy Jones score the film, but after showing it to him Jones said, “Nope, that’s a mother. I couldn’t put music on that, it would only spoil it.”
However, the best part of this release outside of the film is the included 44-page booklet with the Kent Jones essay I referenced twice in this review and even better is the excerpt from Grover Lewis’ Rolling Stone piece focusing on Mitchum from the set of the film titled “The Last Celluloid Desperado.” Just reading the quote from Boyle saying, “You know what the 2001 theme is? That’s the sound of Mitchum waking up.” Now, just wait until you read it in context as it gets even better from there.
I can’t recommend this film for everyone. It is dialogue heavy and even though there are a couple moments of action it slowly develops and unfolds as we learn the fate of Eddie Coyle right along with him. If this is your kind of film I think you will know it from my description and in that case I definitely think you should pick it up, but if you are skeptical give it a rent, it’s a film worth a shot and I would bet at least 50% of you renters fall in love with it.
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