Thursday, May 21, 2009

DVD Views: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) ****
Directed by:
Peter Yates.
Written By: Paul Monash based on the novel by George V. Higgins.
Starring: Robert Mitchum (Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle), Peter Boyle (Dillon), Richard Jordan (Dave Foley), Steven Keats (Jackie Brown), Alex Rocco (Jimmy Scalise), Joe Santos (Artie Van), Mitchell Ryan (Waters), Peter MacLean (Mr. Partridge), Marvin Lichterman (Vernon), Carolyn Pickman (Nancy), James Tolkan (The Man's contact man), Margaret Ladd (Andrea), Matthew Cowles (Pete), Helena Carroll (Sheila Coyle), Jack Kehoe (The Beard).

The title The Friends of Eddie Coyle is meant ironically. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) has no friends and he knows it. He has business acquaintances, who depending on what they need can be nice to Eddie, or stab him in the back. Eddie knows and accepts this. After all, he would do the same to them.

I cannot think of a less glamorous view of criminal life than this film. The characters in this film get no sense of joy out of their life of crime – they are world weary and beaten down by life. No one more so than Eddie. He is facing a second prison term up in New Hampshire for driving some stolen booze, and he is trying everything to avoid it. He has a wife and three kids that he needs to support. But he dutifully goes about his job in Boston, buying guns from one guy to sell to another.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not a violent movie – only twice are guns fired, and there is nothing that anyone would consider an action scene. There are two bank robberies in the film, and although one of them turns violent, they are not “exciting” in the normal sense of the word. The bank robbers are professionals – they don’t take unnecessary risks, are loud and boisterous, and don’t shoot without a reason. If you do what they say, nothing bad will happen to you. Unlike many criminals in the movies, these guys actually mean it.

The movie is essentially made up of one conversation after another, between sets of criminals and cops, all angling for something, all just trying to survive or move up the ladder. Eddie talks to his gun contact Jackie Brown (Steven Keats, and yes Tarantino is a fan of the movie), who is still young enough to be brash and bold. He drives a bright yellow sports car that sticks out like a sore thumb. But Eddie calmly and rationally breaks Jackie down, in a scene with some of the best dialogue ever written for the screen. Jackie starts out thinking he’s in control of the situation, but Eddie quickly, and effortlessly, turns the tables and lets him know what’s what. “The first thing I learned is to never ask a man why he’s in a hurry. The second thing I learned is that when you don’t deliver, one of the two of us is going to get hurt. And that someone is going to be you”. Like all the dialogue in the movie it strikes a cord of realism, and is delivered effortlessly.

The other key players in the movie are Dillion (Peter Boyle) who runs the bar, and is the guy that Eddie refused to name when caught driving the truck. Unbeknownst to anyone, Dillion is also working as a snitch for Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), a Treasury Agent who wants to break some big cases to move up the ladder. Eddie also reaches out to Foley, hoping that he’ll put in a good word with the US Attorney and get him out of the jail sentence he has coming up. First Eddie dangles Jackie in front of him, and then later he’ll try to sell out Scalise (Alex Rocco) and Artie Van (Joe Santos), the guys who we see robbing the banks with the guns that Eddie supplies them. But someone has already sold out the bank robbers, leaving Eddie high and dry, even though everyone thinks, because of Dillion, that Eddie really did rat on them.

The movie never fully spells out its plot. Instead, some of the key events happen off screen. But this isn’t a criticism of the movie, but rather one of its strengths. Do we really need to see who ratted on the bank robbers to know who did it? Isn’t it painfully clear? Director Peter Yates and screenwriter Paul Monash, working from the novel by George V. Higgins, trust the audience enough to put the pieces together.

All of the actors in the movie are brilliant, but none more so than Mitchum. It is a testament to his, and the entire casts’ skill, that he fits in effortlessly with a group of character actors. Mitchum had one of the most dominating screen presences in cinema history – often he could make other actors look foolish simply by standing there doing nothing (in fact, it was when Mitchum tried to do things – like accents, although he gets the Boston one here down cold, that he was he least effective). But Mitchum doesn’t do that in this film. His haircut reminded me of those kids whose mother’s would cut their hair for them in the kitchen; his face is sullen and hollow. You never catch Mitchum “acting” in this movie. He just is Eddie Coyle. It is one of his very best performances. The rest of the cast, particularly Boyle who is chillingly cold blooded – the kind of guy who smiles to your face as he plans to plant a dagger in your back – are all up to the task.

The movie ends with a pathetically sad sequence that is appropriate for the story. Eddie and Dillion go to a Bruins game, where Eddie slowly gets drunker and drunker. By the time he looks down at “Number 4, Bobby Orr” and says “What a kid. What is he, 24? What a future that kid has”, we realize why he’s saying that. It’s because Eddie has no future at all, and he knows it. He has essentially been dead from the moment he first walks on screen in the film. The film is a descent into the inevitable. There will no getting out of it for Eddie, and no glamorous end to it. You’ll be surprised by just how moved you are by Eddie.

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