Archive for June 1973

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

June 26, 1973

I asked two different guys, I said: “Did he know?” They didn’t think so. I begged to differ. But we’ll get back to that.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is great icon-smashing and icon-making all in one. Robert Mitchum, at age 56, slouches onto the screen as the titular anti-hero, a low-level guy with connections. You need guns, Eddie knows where to get them for you. He is perhaps too professional, and too honorable deep down, to be dealing with some of the new breed. They can be stupid, impetuous. Not that Eddie trusts anyone, but he especially doesn’t trust some of these kids, wanting machine guns, going off half-assed.

Eddie is looking at two years for hijacking, and he can’t be doing two years, not with a wife and kids to provide for. So he sighs and becomes a fink, a half-a-man; he does a deal with ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), who wants Eddie to dime on various gun-runners and bank robbers. What else is he going to do? It’s not as if his honor among thieves — keeping his mouth shut and doing the time, as he’s done before — has gotten him anywhere except conventionally unemployable and living in a Quincy shithole with a kitchen that two people can’t comfortably stand in.

Director Peter Yates and scripter/producer Paul Monash, adapting a George V. Higgins novel, stage the robberies in an almost becalmed fashion. These guys (led by Alex Rocco, a former Whitey Bulger crony in real life) aren’t kids; they know what they’re doing, they’ve got everything worked out, and so there are no Dog Day Afternoon panicking and screw-ups. The bank employees (except for one idiot in a later heist) have obviously been trained to deal with the situation: just stay frosty, do what they tell you, and don’t be a hero. “We don’t get off on hurting people,” one of the robbers says, and I believe him. It’s not about sadism, it’s about getting in and out with the money. There are no Mr. Blondes in this crew.

The characters may not know how to pronounce “Natick” or “Quincy” (I’m from Massachusetts, so when I heard someone say “Natick” as if it rhymed with “static” I said “Really?”), but Yates nails the Boston-area doldrums dead center. Eddie Coyle was shot on location in depressed, shitty areas of Malden, Milton, Dorchester, Somerville; you can bet Ben Affleck had the DVD on heavy rotation while filming The Town. Guys hang around in cramped, smelly bars or drink bad coffee out in the sharp autumn air. Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (one of Pauline Kael’s favorite whipping boys) tended toward the flat and grungy in his lighting, but that works in this environment.

Mitchum masters the Boston accent and never plays a false note. He pulls off the impressive trick of making Eddie a loser who’s still a bad-ass. Mitchum came from old Hollywood (he entered movies in 1943), but he looks perfectly at home trading lines and attitudes with new-jack toughs like Peter Boyle and Richard Jordan and Steven Keats. These guys sure as hell step up their game opposite Mitchum, too. Thing is, Yates keeps everyone cool. Nobody has a big scene. Someone has a metaphorical speech at the end, but it’s shot and staged lackadaisically, as if one guy’s insight into this corrupt world didn’t amount to much.

And now we enter SPOILER territory; if you haven’t seen the film, leave now (and go rent it).
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Like I said, I talked to two guys who’ve seen Eddie Coyle a bunch of times each. I asked them, “Did he know?,” and they immediately knew what I meant. And they both said no, he didn’t know. What “he” — Eddie — didn’t know, according to them, is that Peter Boyle would wrap up the night out at dinner and a Bruins game by putting a slug in Eddie’s head. Me, I think Eddie knew; he knew when he was about to give up the bank robbers to Dave Foley and was told that someone else had already ratted them out. That’s when he could see, in William S. Burroughs’ words, what was frozen on the end of his fork. He knew he was fucked good and proper; the only question was where and when. So when Peter Boyle offered him dinner and a Bruins game, Eddie just said to himself, “Why the fuck not. A good meal, the Bruins, get loaded, leave this life. There are worse ways to go out. Like in prison.”

“Baby, I don’t care” (a line from Out of the Past) so perfectly summed up Robert Mitchum’s nihilist-noir hipster appeal that it served as the title of his 2002 biography; here, it’s replaced by “Why the fuck not” — which Mitchum never utters here, as I recall, but he might as well. The movie is about a middle-aged crook staring down not only the end of his life but the end of his world and everything he ever knew about it. The title is, of course, ironic (no honor among thieves) but at the same time saddening. After all, the dinner and Bruins game weren’t necessary; the shot could’ve happened on the way to the restaurant or to Boston Garden. What is that, in this crap world the color of piss-soaked newspaper, but some kind of friendship?


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