Criterion // 1973 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 19th, 2009
It's a grubby, violent, dangerous world. But it's the only world they know. And they're the only friends Eddie has.
Nobody loves you when you're down and out,
Nobody knows you when you're on cloud nine,
Everybody's hustling for a buck and a dime,
I'll scratch your back and you knife mine.
-- John Lennon
Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past) is a two-bit crook just trying to get by. He recently finished up a 5-year stint in prison and he's in no hurry to go back anytime soon. Even so, shortly after his release he agreed to drive a truck for a pal named Dillon (Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein). The truck contained some not-so-legal materials, and Coyle found himself back in court again. He's currently out on bail, but it's looking like another 3-5 years are in store if somebody doesn't say something on his behalf to the judge. Coyle's never been a snitch; he's a good guy who's about as trustworthy as anyone in the seedy Boston underworld. Still, he has a wife and three kids that he cares about. Eddie's 51 years old, and he doesn't want to waste what life he has left behind bars. Will he turn on his friends in order to get a pass? If he attempts to do so, will he be able to avoid deadly retaliation?
Peter Yates is a director with a fairly simple and somewhat ordinary resumé. His films are mostly straightforward crime films and dramas that provide reasonably satisfactory entertainment. Yates' relaxed sense of cool realism works remarkably well toward making his adaptation of George V. Higgins' novel a memorable cinematic experience. Here is a film that has no real beginning, no real end, and absolutely no sense of over-the-top sensationalism whatsoever. It does not make an attempt to be an "important" art film or an exciting mainstream thriller. It simply is what it is, a quiet and affecting story of despairing criminals attempting to stay alive and make a living on the streets of Boston.
Robert Mitchum's Eddie Coyle may be the title character, but the film is not necessarily his story. It's the story of men like him in general. The film is filled with such men. They are all leading dangerous lives, engaging in risky illegal activity each and every day. Most of them aren't making a whole lot more than they would if they worked an ordinary job. That doesn't really matter. It's what they know how to do, and they're going to keep doing it until someone makes them stop. Odds are that someone will, eventually. There's a sense of defeated resignation among the men of this film, a silent mutual understanding that they are merely pawns in a violent chess game being played by men whose names they dare not bandy about in casual conversation. We don't see much of the people running the show here. We see the assistants of the important people, friends of the assistants, contacts of the friends, business associates of the contacts. They shuffle about their business, cautiously attempting to take care of their assignments with as little controversy as possible.
The film is more or less equally divided between tightly crafted scenes of suspense and casual scenes of dialogue. The suspense scenes are somewhat unusual in the way they are handled. There's a bank robbery sequence toward the beginning of the film that is surprisingly relaxed. The thieves are calm and level-headed. They abduct the family of the bank manager, hold them hostage, and break the news to the manager in as non-threatening a manner as possible. "Look, we have your family. We're not interested in hurting people, we don't want to bring any harm to anyone. Simply be calm and cooperate with us, and everything will be fine." It's a quietly conducted robbery that goes about as well for all parties involved as such things can possibly be expected to go. Even so, Yates manages to maintain a considerable level of tension throughout. Contrast this with a later robbery sequence, which somehow feels less tense but is actually considerably more unstable. Both scenes (and other, smaller moments of crime) are handled with a low-key realism that provides viewers with a sad, unglamorous look at the daily grind of these men.
The general despair of life for these guys is demonstrated during the robbery sequences and remarked upon during the dialogue scenes. As with the crime sequences, the point of the dialogue scenes is suggested rather than explicitly stated. The men do not sit around talking about how sad they are and how badly they want to survive. At the same time, that's precisely what they are doing. A man needs a certain thing by a certain date. If he doesn't get it in time, he's in trouble. The man who can provide this thing may not be able to get it by that particular date. If he tries, he could make too much noise. Between the lines, there are looks of broken longing. "Won't you help a pal? Remember what I did for you that time?"
The cast handles this with unforced naturalism. Robert Mitchum has long been one of my favorite actors precisely because of his ability to seem so comfortable onscreen. I have rarely seen a performance in which it seemed to me that Mitchum was "acting." Here he adopts an understated Boston accent and a slightly disheveled wardrobe, but otherwise he looks and sounds just like plain old Mitchum. Still, he immediately becomes Eddie Coyle, a man nobody particularly needs or cares about anymore. He's supported nicely by a whole host of stellar supporting players, including Peter Boyle as a bartender and Steven Keats (The Gambler) as a gun dealer named "Jackie Brown" (Elmore Leonard is a fan of the novel). This is the sort of film in which seemingly throwaway lines contain a wealth of knowledge about the characters in their world. Here's a sample dialogue exchange.
Jackie: "I know this guy; he says he wants to get his hands on some
Eddie: "What color is he?"
Jackie: "Hey, he's a nice guy."
The film was made in 1973, a rich period creatively but unfortunately also a period in which many films were not very well-preserved. The Friends of Eddie Coyle has obviously taken a beating over the years, though Criterion has done a typically solid job of cleaning it up. The film is mostly free of scratches and flecks, though a fairly steady stream of grain remains. Flesh tones occasionally seem just a little off, but the level of detail here (particularly facial detail during close-ups) is impressive. The audio is in 1.0 mono, but it's crisp and clean throughout. Dave Grusin's energetic score (livelier than the actual film most of the time) sounds particularly sharp and vibrant.
The extras here are fairly minimal, as this is one of Criterion's somewhat-more-affordable $30 releases. The only substantial extra is a commentary with director Peter Yates, who offers his (sadly somewhat vague) memories of the film, the cast, and the crew. It's a decent listen, but I really wish that Criterion had brought in one of their experts to offer an analysis of this film (though that probably would have increased the price by 10 bucks). The only other extra included on the disc is a stills gallery. However, you do get a whopping 46-page booklet featuring two superb pieces on the film: a tribute from critic Kent Jones and a Rolling Stone profile of Robert Mitchum written on the set of the film in 1973. Excellent reading.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a must-see for fans of '70s cinema. It's brilliant and masterful, but those words somehow seem too big and fancy for a movie like this one. I'll tell you what it is. It's a special movie. Yes, special and very resonant. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Image Gallery