I’m wondering how many synonyms for the word “seedy” I’ll need to get through this review. Probably aren’t enough in the English language.
If ever there’s been a film that can’t be accused of glorifying lawlessness, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is it. There’s no flash, no romanticized, noir-esque outbursts of stylized violence, no glamourous bacchanalian excess following the big score. In Peter Yates’ determinedly grounded 1973 crime drama, we witness the downward slope of the life of crime, but in a decidedly workman fashion, one lacking the precipitous drop of a high-roller getting his comeuppance. We follow Eddie Coyle, middle-aged and facing a prison stint for stealing a truckload of Canadian whisky, as he bottoms out attempting to stave off his impending incarceration. Far removed from the upper echelons of mob hierarchy, Eddie’s a low-rent bit player, a utility guy that facilitates and angles yet sees little glory or benefits for his troubles. Yet he seems to know a little about everything going down, and tries to turn this knowledge into a way out of his troubles.
Robert Mitchum, as Coyle, captures this hangdog desperation in a startlingly unsexy performance, hiding his classic Hollywood cool behind frumpy clothes and a fifty-cent haircut. Coyle’s a loser, almost pitiable in the way he can’t catch a break after self-servingly plotting against his cohorts, and Mitchum makes sure any bravado and bluster Coyle attempts comes off as tired and hollow. The man can’t even kiss his wife without it looking awkward and forced; it’s as if every aspect of Eddie’s life is shrouded in disappointment and half-assed attempts at swagger, both of which show through every time he opens his mouth. It’s a glorious example of casting against type, and Mitchum proves just as adept at playing a knockoff tough guy as he is a real one.
Yet, unexpectedly, this film is not Coyle’s. Not completely, anyway. The Friends of Eddie Coyle serves as quite the literal title, even if it could more accurately be written ”Friends”–the plot spends nearly half its time following Coyle’s associates. There’s Scalise, played by the always-welcome Alex Rocco, a bank robber who approaches heists with the same placid matter-of-factness as a guy who repairs large appliance for a living. Steven Keats is the gunrunning hipster Jackie Brown, who seems ridiculously concerned about keeping a low profile for a guy that drives a neon-yellow Plymouth Road Runner. And Robert Jordan hunts them all as Agent Foley (forgive me for not being able to decipher exactly which agency, since different sources have him working for different bureaus.) Foley’s a particularly fascinating guy to follow, since he cagily works Coyle for information, yet never seems to think he’s been given enough to actually help Coyle with his conviction. And, even though Foley’s the only real potential hero in the film, he’s got enough of a layer of grime to him to make his actions come across just as immoral as those he’s chasing.
Doesn’t help that Foley’s getting hoodwinked by Dillon, the frighteningly reptilian bar owner played by Peter Boyle. Boyle’s amazing here, terrifying in his utter coldness, ruthlessly playing both sides of the coin by selling information to Foley yet still putting in work whenever bigwig mafiosos send a request. In a film full of scumbags Dillon out-scuzzes them all, bookending Eddie’s fall with a pair of bitterly mercenary acts, then guiding the poor loser off the cliff with friendly advice and a trip to a Bruins game. If Coyle’s the preeminent scrambler, desperate to make a hand out of the shitty cards he’s been dealt, then Dillon’s the wily cheat, stacking the deck and cramming kings up his sleeves. And, in the gritty reality of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there’s never a question as to who’s gonna win the pot, and who’s going bust.