The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is a 1973 feature from veteran English director Peter Yates which stands alongside the filmmaker’s 1968 classic Bullit as one of the most influential and necessary movies of the genre.
Set in the murky, mobster-run underbelly of Boston, Massachusetts, screen icon Robert Mitchum plays the titular Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle; a down on his luck petty criminal who, through bad choices and even worse fortune, is now facing a lengthy stretch in prison after being picked up for handling stolen goods. Coyle has a family who he doesn’t want to see end up on welfare and takes on a few jobs acquiring weapons for a group of armed robbers he knows of old. Simultaneously, however, he’s passing on information to the police. A tentative balance between loyalty and desperation is present from the offset, and Coyle’s time is short.
Opening with a moody, relevatory sequence between Coyle and a local gun runner named Jackie Brown (yes, that is indeed where the name came from), played with brash machismo by Steven Keats, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle sets the tone as a bleak and unforgiving feature, and it doesn’t let up from thereon in.
Coyle still hangs around a bar run by a local sleaze named Dillon (Peter Boyle), who set him up with the job on which he got busted. All the while, he maintains his relationship with Dave Foley, an ATF Agent who is also being fed information by Dillon. It’s a twisted and underhand circle, comprised of desperate men whose only loyalties lie with themselves.
Can Coyle negotiate his way through it, keeping himself out of jail and a shallow grave in the process?
Yates puts us through the ringer before allowing us to find out.
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle pulls no punches in a manner of which only a movie from the ’70s can. It’s gritty, nasty stuff which never lets up for a second. The sick ball of tension which forms from the very first encounter builds to a stunning climax without so much as a moment of relief in the interim. As soon as Coyle appears, empathy for him is formed. He’s a lumbering, sympathetic figure who clearly never caught the break he was searching for. He’s utilised by the gangs, but not fully trusted or embraced by them. As his options become slimmer, and jail looks like the inevitable, that’s when he turns and starts giving Foley info on the guns and the gangs.
The armed robbery sequences are nail-biting stuff, with the group of masked perpetrators, led by Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco), organise a series of tiger kidnappings in which the manager’s family are kept hostage as they are led to their place of work and forced to open the safe. As the robberies increase in both scale and intensity, their need for greater firepower grows. This leads them to Coyle who, in turn, puts pressure on Brown to deliver the goods. Pressure mounts on all sides, especially for Coyle, for whom the clock is ticking at a faster rate than most.
With several heists, all containing the deftness of portrayal which is inimitable to Yates’ style, running parallel to the informant plotline and the story of Coyle himself, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is as vital an entry into the canon of great ’70s crime films as Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Conversation, or Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. The cars, the soundtrack, the style; it’s all present. There’s a lyricism to the dialogue which presents an authenticity that has been since lost amongst Hollywood cliche. The characters are intriguing and fundamentally flawed, each one with their own baggage and complications. It’s one of those rare hybrids of intellectually stimulating, visceral cinema which excites as much as it provokes thought and analysis.
Eureka! Masters of Cinema have, once again, put together a respectful and worthy package to celebrate this underappreciated ’70s crime classic. Aside from the beautiful restoration, which maintains the grainy delight of the original print, but presents it in a gloriously enhanced HD format, they have accumulated a wealth of informative and enjoyable extras as part of the Blu-Ray release.
There is a fantastic video interview with Yates from the mid-90s, presumably filmed on the promotional tour for The Run of the Country, in which the filmmaker speaks extensively about The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, Bullit and more. A thorough essay from film critic Mike Sutton is contained in the accompanying booklet, along with several other enlightening and entertaining interviews.
One of the main things to come from all of the associated material is just how influential this was, as both a film and a novel. First published by George V. Higgins in 1970, the book was praised by Elmore Leonard as being one of the best crime novels ever written. Higgins’ flair for dialogue and characterization is handled with a rare adeptness by Yeats, who knows exactly how to get the best from his cast.
Loved by those in the know, but still a mystery to many, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle should be a title adorning the shelves of any crime fan once it gets its release on January 25th.