Tuesday, 3 January 2012

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Director Peter Yates blends humanity with tough-as-nails brutality in this bonafide crime classic from the 70s

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the TENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) dir. Peter Yates
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Alex Rocco.


By Greg Klymkiw

The fate of Eddie Coyle, the title character of this grim Peter Yates-directed crime drama, is so clear right from the beginning, so infused with a profound and palpable inevitability, that one could wonder what the point is of seeing the film at all. The point, however, becomes quickly and abundantly clear.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a genuine masterpiece.

Right from Eddie Coyle’s first appearance – heavy-lidded, baggy-eyed, paunchy, world-weary and shuffling with the gait of a once-physically-powerful man now consigned to the throbbing aches of late middle age – we pretty much know he’s doomed. Late at night and under the cold glare of fluorescent lights in a cafeteria-styled diner, Eddie places a slice of rubbery pie and a cup of coffee onto his tray and joins the table of a greasy, long-haired, bug-eyed young thug.

Wolfing his pie down between slurps of watery coffee, Eddie’s manner is been-there-done-that as he negotiates with the thug to purchase an ordnance of powerful and highly illegal handguns. The thug’s clearly an upstart, oozing bravado – peppering it with promises he might clearly not be able to keep. Eddie sets him straight - almost like a schoolteacher lecturing his young charge. Holding his battered fist in front of the thug, Coyle explains how he has twice the number of knuckles most people have. Eddie's nickname is "Knuckles". His hand was crushed - punishment for lousing up a job based on a false promise.

But Eddie’s not bitter. It’s business, he explains. It’s "The Life" – a life he chose in the only world he ever felt comfortable in. But now, Eddie needs a big score and he needs favours. If he can’t get them, he’s headed straight for hard time. His wife will have to collect welfare and his kids will face the cruel taunts of their classmates for having a no-account Dad. It would seem Eddie needs a miracle. He needs more than that, though. What Eddie really needs are friends. Right now, he has none – at least none that he can count on.

Promises are cheap. So is life.

Robert Mitchum, one of the screen’s most legendary and charismatic actors, is Eddie Coyle. Playing everything from cops to cowboys to soldiers and everything in between (including his stunning turns as the evil Max Cady in Cape Fear and the malevolent psycho lay preacher in Night of the Hunter), Eddie Coyle is a role that not only fits Mitchum like a well-worn baseball glove but is, I truly believe, his best role and quite probably his greatest performance. Mitchum serves up a hardened criminal – albeit a marked, desperate one who knows what he needs to survive, even if it means succumbing to the lowest rung of his kind and turning stool pigeon to cops who seem, frankly, no better than the criminals they seek to incarcerate.

As a director, Peter Yates was certainly no stranger to the crime genre when he made The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He’d already directed the Donald Westlake heist picture The Hot Rock, the gritty British-produced Robbery (a realist, almost semi-documentary-styled dramatization of 1963’s notorious “great train robbery” starring Stanley Baker), numerous episodes of such classic TV crime series as Danger Man and (one of my personal favourites) The Saint. Last, but certainly not least, Yates helmed Bullitt, the slam-bang Steve McQueen detective thriller that set the bar for all cinematic car chases that would follow. There was always, however, another side to Yates who gave us the gentle comedy of Breaking Away and the tragic gay love story The Dresser. It is finally this combination of the macho stylist and the gentle humanist that made Yates a natural to direct The Friends of Eddie Coyle. These seemingly dichotomous qualities Yates possessed are probably what make the picture so great.

The other, of course, is Yates gift with getting the most out of locations. While Bullitt, showcased Steve McQueen’s baby blues, Jacqueline Bisset’s feminine perfection and a car chase that has seldom been matched, it most brilliantly and stunningly extolled the virtues of the city of San Francisco.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is set in Boston and the last time I checked, it was and is a city of great beauty. You’d never know it from Yates's grim eye. He goes well out of his way to show us a Boston that nobody, save perhaps Eddie Coyle and other underworld denizens would bother to live in. In seedy cafes, dank bars, endlessly indistinguishable parking lots, near-tenement slums, lifeless suburbs, cold, almost Kafkaesque inner city cement financial districts and other equally unflattering locales, Yates and gritty, versatile cinematographer Victor (Dog Day Afternoon, The Gambler) Kemper train their lens on the non-descript and do so with harsh light, available light or no light at all. And lots of grain. Glorious chunks of swirling, dancing grain.

Paul Monash’s excellent script beautifully distills George V. Higgins novel of the same name. Higgins, a former prosecuting attorney turned crime writer always displayed a knack for dialogue that crackled with life and constructed narratives that defied typical crime story structures.

One of the odd things about Monash's script and Yates's adherence to it is the strange focus upon the nasty, brutal crimes committed as a result of Coyle’s efforts. Coyle is peripherally involved as a supplier to the criminals, but Yates and Monash lavish considerable attention and detail upon the various bank robberies that take place – none of which ever directly involve the title character. Not only is this an opportunity for Yates to dazzle us with his virtuosity as a filmmaker, but narratively and cinematically, it drives the nails of truth into us - that Eddie's dealings have serious consequences. His crimes are very real and not at all without victims.

And though our “hero” never gets so much as a moment to brandish a weapon, (which is, in and of itself highly unconventional for any crime picture), we are flung back to the reality and inevitability of Coyle’s eventual demise. Yates never lets us forget just how doomed poor Eddie is. Nowhere is this more haunting and downright moving than the heart-achingly tragic sequence where Coyle’s “friend”, the two-timing killer Dillon (Peter Boyle) takes him to a Boston Bruins hockey game, plies him with endless pints of beer and engages in pleasantries, all the while knowing that at the end of the evening, he has been entrusted with the mission to blow Eddie Coyle’s brains out.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Friends of Eddie Coyle as a kid with my ex-cop Dad. It was a movie that stayed with me and haunted me for the thirty or so years since first seeing it.

What I don’t think I’ll ever forget was my Dad’s response at the end of the movie. “That’s the way it is, kid, that’s just the way it is,” he said to me, with more than a little sadness in his voice, and with many long years under his belt dealing with guys just like Eddie Coyle.

Seeing the movie now, those words still hold true. Only now, I’m able to see Eddie himself, lumbering through the inevitability of his doom – those same words emblazoned, no doubt, on his brain.

That’s just the way it is.

"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is available on a terrific Criterion Collection DVD.