“It’s A Great Life If You Don’t Weaken”: ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ at 50

Johnny Restall / March 20, 2023

American cinema of the 1970s has long been recognized for its downbeat, character-led crime dramas. From Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971) to Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) and Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978), the decade saw a wealth of unusually complex thrillers released by major Hollywood studios. While the critical reception to such films was largely positive, they frequently drew more mixed responses from contemporary audiences, as well as from nervous studio executives. Director Peter Yates’s 1973 The Friends of Eddie Coyle stands as a particularly bleak and restrained example of this cycle, adapted by Paul Monash from George V. Higgins’s 1970 novel of the same name. A deliberately low-key tale of a struggling small-time criminal clinging to the dark underbelly of Boston, it failed to make its money back at the box office, despite generally favorable reviews. Compelling and brilliantly understated, it remains a somewhat unsung gem of the period, ripe for reconsideration as we approach the 50th anniversary of its initial release.

We first see Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) through the window of a run-down cafeteria. He approaches the glass from outside, slowly emerging from the evening crowds to stare warily into the interior, quietly surveying the scene inside in a way that suggests experience has taught him not to be hasty. His gray clothes match his exhausted, lugubrious features, with his cautious, hooded eyes the only expressive part of his appearance. Already, the film has subtly established Eddie as a shabby, lonely figure, forever on the outside looking in, still seeking his chance but more from habit than any residual self-belief. He is framed above the flowers on the interior windowsill, and their bright bloom contrasts with his drab shape like a funeral bouquet against a gravestone; almost subliminally, the visuals inform the audience that he is essentially a dead man walking.

Eddie is an aging professional criminal, painfully aware that his time and his options are inexorably running out. He is due to be sentenced for his part in a truck hijacking and has little reason to expect clemency, having already served time for previous offenses. He knows better than to inform on the people behind the job, partly from a shop-worn sense of honor and partly from simple self-preservation, having already earned an extra set of knuckles from his associates for a past mistake. He is also trying to make ends meet by supplying handguns to a gang of bank robbers, and his ears prick up when cocky young gunrunner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) mentions another customer who is buying machine guns. If he passes this information on to the authorities, he might earn a reprieve from the law—he’s too old and tired to face prison again, and has a wife and children to provide for. But can he trust either the cops or the criminals? Eddie’s titular “friends” are closer to jackals nipping at his threadbare carcass, and the scent of his desperation may only bring them in for the kill.

While the plot synopsis may sound formulaic, the approach taken by Yates and Monash repeatedly confounds expectations. Echoing the ground-breaking style of Higgins’s book, the film provides little overt explanation or exposition. The characters, their relationships to one another, and the twists and turns of the labyrinthine plot are conveyed almost entirely through the sharp but sometimes oblique dialogue, forcing the viewer to draw their own conclusions from what is (or indeed isn’t) said. Most of the key scenes consist of innocuous-sounding but heavily freighted conversations between the duplicitous players, and we are never made privy to their inner thoughts or motivations beyond an occasional unguarded word or a vulnerability in their body language. Victor J. Kemper’s unobtrusive cinematography captures the characters under sickly fluorescent lights or lurking uncomfortably in the Autumn sunshine, inviting the audience to study them in their natural habitat as though they were anthropological exhibits. While this admittedly cold approach may alienate casual viewers, it contributes greatly to the film’s sense of realism. It often feels as if we just happen to be in the same dive bars and municipal parks as the cast, eavesdropping on their meetings and quietly connecting the fragments for ourselves—a notion taken further in Francis Ford Coppola’s deliberately disorientating The Conversation, released the following year.

The distinctly unglamorous documentary style of the film also extends to its brief bursts of violence. Yates made his name with the iconic 1968 Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt, as well as his underrated 1967 British feature Robbery, but while all three films share brilliant use of authentic locations, viewers hoping for a repeat of his earlier kinetic car chases will be disappointed here. The closest Eddie Coyle comes to an action scene is Jackie Brown’s abortive attempt to escape the police in the train station car park: barely 20 seconds of wayward driving leading only to an abrupt, clumsy crash. Perversely, Eddie Coyle is a thriller without any traditional thrills. The bank robberies are played with more of an eye for detail than for visceral excitement, as are the arrests. Even the climactic murder of Coyle himself is over almost as soon as it has begun, the victim deep in a drunken slumber and executed unawares while the experienced gunman casually discusses his choice of weapon and disposal plans for the body with the callow driver. The uncharacteristically restrained score by jazz musician Dave Grusin is used only sparingly, and even when it is allowed to breathe and build tension, the pay-off is always swift and matter-of-fact.

In part, this approach reflects the story’s focus on aging gangsters rather than hot-headed young hoodlums. Most of the characters are dull professional men who no longer have the energy or inclination to be incautious in their chosen line of work. Crucially, it also reflects the novel’s preoccupation with presenting crime as simply another form of employment, a thread shared with several other genre films in the age of Watergate. Again and again, The Friends of Eddie Coyle emphasizes the tedious practicalities of the illegal jobs in hand rather than their novelty or danger. The film opens with the robbers tailing an unsuspecting bank manager to his workplace, calmly monitoring his morning routine, casing the branch, and painstakingly setting up their plans, with the resulting heist defined by a similar attention to minutiae. Likewise, we follow the laborious processes of how Eddie buys and delivers his guns, how Brown sources them in the first place, how the criminals communicate with each other below the radar, and eventually how a hit is placed, performed, and dispensed with.

Tellingly, almost every one of these criminal actions is executed in everyday public locations, from a supermarket car park to a bowling alley, as if they were simply a part of ordinary life. We see Eddie at home in the city suburbs, taking out the trash as his children run for the school bus, looking for all the world like any other downtrodden blue collar worker. His wife Sheila (Helena Carroll) appears relatively sanguine about his chosen occupation, with their domestic life presented with a warmth absent from the novel’s more fractious depiction. The film seems to suggest that, while his career may be empty and crushing, it is little more so than several other legal forms of menial employment.

The universe inhabited by the film’s gangsters could barely be further from the epic grandeur of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, released the previous year to great critical and commercial acclaim. Eddie and his “friends” are at the bottom of the pile struggling to make ends meet, far from Coppola’s affluent if troubled Mafia clan. If the Corleones represent moral and political corruption reaching for the apex of US society (particularly in the 1974 sequel), Yates’s film deals with the lowest of the low, who are barely chiseling out a criminal living at the shabbiest, sharpest end of the American Dream. While Vito Corleone dreams of his son Michael becoming a senator, Coyle and his associates show little awareness of nationwide politics, let alone any ambitions in that direction. They are not even on the periphery of the kind of multi-million dollar deals attempted by the New York mobsters of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). They gamble everything on a relative pittance, and fail to recognize their losing hand. Scalise (Alex Rocco) and his bank robbers may drive a Mercedes-Benz (presumably stolen), but this only serves to symbolize the way their desire overreaches their actual opportunities and abilities: their greedy decision to pull “one more move” even after a job goes murderously wrong seals their fate.

While the small-time crooks we see in the film scrounge a living from a life of crime, the police live off the criminals. There is a deeply parasitic relationship between the two, embodied by the ruthless agent Foley (Richard Jordan) and the quietly sinister Dillon (Peter Boyle), ostensibly a bartender but actually the man behind the truck hijacking that led to Eddie’s capture, as well as a secret police informer. Foley is ambitious, arrogant, and exploitative, happy to go back on his word or ignore a felony if it suits his purposes. He may share a lack of uniform and longer hair with the upstanding protagonist of Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, released the same year, but Foley’s duplicitous crusade is entirely for the benefit of his own career. He brags about driving fast cars confiscated from criminals, happy to profit from their ill-gotten gains, and thinks nothing of manipulating and exposing the lowly likes of Eddie, contemptuous of the fatal costs for his underworld connections. He regularly meets Dillon, paying him $20 for information and turning a blind eye to the bartender’s suspected illegalities in return, an arrangement tacitly endorsed by his cynical superior Waters (Mitchell Ryan). Foley blithely insists that a beleaguered nobody like Eddie puts his “whole soul” into informing, while effectively giving the more cunning and dangerous Dillon a free pass to run rings around him.

Like almost every other relationship in the film, enforcement of the law is a game rigged against the weakest. American society is depicted as being riddled with division and contempt, with everybody at odds with everyone else and playing entirely for their own advantage. The hippy radicals trying to buy machine guns are despised by professionals like Brown and vice versa, the criminals frequently betray each other, and the mob is rife with casual bigotry against Black activists and the ghetto, with the police working against them all and encouraging their mutual antipathies for fear of the various underclasses one day working together. Even the affluent, apolitical middle-classes are unwillingly dragged into the maelstrom, represented by the bemused bank managers and their terrified families, forced to endure violent reminders of the precariousness of their apparent social safety.

Naturally, such a bleak story requires strong performances if it is to be brought to life without entirely repulsing its audience. Mitchum’s work as Eddie must rank among the finest of his career, playing to his hangdog, world-weary strengths without allowing him to slip into the bored detachment that mars his lesser films. Coyle is no hero, and in many ways he is not even likable: he is bigoted, he arms violent men, and while he is far from stupid he is never quite smart enough, failing even to turn informer successfully. Yet Mitchum imbues the character with a dignity and pathos that ensures his downfall is as pitiful as it is inevitable, a deeply flawed but compellingly human victim of the hard and unforgiving world around him.

Despite the prominence of his name, Mitchum’s character is actually only on screen intermittently, with much of the film carried by the universally superb supporting cast. Jackie Brown is almost a second lead, with Keats playing him with just the right amount of intriguing obnoxiousness. He seems the polar opposite of Coyle: young, loudly dressed, driving a flashy car, and full of tough, cocksure bravado. Yet the two are inextricably linked, sharing the first scene post-credits, and reuniting at several other key moments. It is with Brown that Eddie shares his care-worn wisdom and back story—not that it does either of them any good in the long run. Brown is too arrogant to heed Eddie’s warnings that “You don’t understand like I understand,” and is dismissive of the older man’s complaints, failing to see that Coyle is essentially a mirror reflecting Brown’s own probable future. Eddie, meanwhile, seems to resent the younger man’s opportunities and vigor, seizing his opportunity to sell the gunrunner out with only the mildest sense of distaste. Neither quite has the wit to escape his respective fate, and both are too mistrustful and scheming to consider anything beyond immediate personal profit, inadvertently ensuring that they become easy prey for the venal likes of Foley and Dillon.

The conclusion of Monash’s screenplay departs from Higgins’s book to deliver a last pessimistic twist of the narrative knife. In the novel, Scalise is secretly betrayed by his mistreated girlfriend Wanda, but the mob suspects Eddie of being the informer and orders his murder at Dillon’s hands. (The desperate Eddie does in fact decide to inform on the thieves, only to find he has left his decision too late, with the men already in custody and his information now useless.) In the film, the informer is revealed to be Dillon, who has maneuvered himself into the clear with an utterly sociopathic coldness. He has eliminated Eddie, who could have informed on Dillon’s role in the hijacking that started his troubles, and he has avoided any mob suspicion of being the informer himself by framing and assassinating a (relatively) innocent man for his own treachery, even earning himself $5,000 in the process. Further, he has correctly calculated that the ambitious Foley will be so delighted with the capture of the prolific bank robbers that he will have no interest in the murder of a small-fry like Eddie. The agent simply shrugs off Dillon’s suspected role in the killing in favor of remaining on good terms with his prize informant.

While the book ends with Brown’s lawyer and prosecutor lamenting the repetitive parade of criminals passing through their courtroom, the film closes even more cynically by showing both sides of the law actively perpetuating the cycle. The most ruthless and corrupt cops and criminals play the system for their own ends, walking away with virtual impunity and leaving hapless souls like Eddie and his family crushed in their wake. Hardened robber Scalise gleefully describes crime as “a great life if you don’t weaken”—loaded words that could be applied to the entire dog-eat-dog world depicted within the film—but even he underestimates just how cruelly and duplicitously the game will be played by the eventual victors.

Johnny Restall writes freelance about films, music, and books. He specializes in Cult and Horror. You can find links to his published work here

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