Wednesday, 6 May 2015

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Crime Classic on Criterion Blu-Ray

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

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The fate of Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is clear as he strides into frame from out of the pitch black Boston night at the beginning of the grim 1973 Peter Yates-directed crime drama. It's as if his downward trajectory has been infused in his very DNA; signed, sealed and delivered at birth with a profound and palpable inevitability.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a masterpiece.

Robert Mitchum inhabits every inch of Eddie: 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. Under the cold glare of fluorescent lights in a 24-hour cafeteria, Eddie places a slice of rubbery pie and a cup of coffee onto his tray and sits at the table occupied by Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), a dark-haired, gap-toothed, 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. Jackie is 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 he has twice the number of knuckles most people have. Eddie's nickname is "Fingers". His hand was crushed - punishment for lousing up a job based on false promises.

But Eddie’s not bitter. It’s business, he explains. It’s the 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. By trade, Eddie's a Teamster truck driver. Unfortunately, he took the wrong driving gig and now he's looking at five years in stir. 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 has played 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.

Mitchum pulls out all the stops, by plugging all of them in. He is, quite simply, less-is-more incarnate; taking his time, listening deeply to his fellow actors, pulling subtle shifts in emotion that register so deeply with us we can feel his pain, frustration, strength, sadness and finally, desperation.

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's gift with details and realism, especially 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, abandoned cement factories, bowling alleys, cold, almost Kafkaesque inner-city financial district public squares 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.

Of course, it makes perfect sense within the context of this world that "business" would always be done in plain view, in public places or, for especially sordid dealings, no man's land. It's not as if these guys have offices. They do, however, have homes. Eddie's home is clearly incongruous with his lifestyle - a clean, small two-story post-war job in an older city suburb with a loyal wife doing the ironing in the cramped, but homey kitchen and the Irish Catholic iconography in the hallway above a telephone set upon a tiny little desk and a patch of yard out front from where Eddie can watch his kids clamber onto their school bus. This is not a place for him to do his dirty business.

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 astonishing things about Monash's adaptation of Higgins's novel and Yates's adherence to the literary sources 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 his writers 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 the slam-bang virtuosity of his many gifts 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 (replete with "Number 4" Bobby Orr on the ice). As the game unfurls before cheering fans, Dillon plies Eddie 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 40+ 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. I see Eddie, lumbering through his own Palookaville, the inevitability of his doom and those same words emblazoned, no doubt, upon his own brain.

That’s just the way it is.


"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is available on a superbly transferred Criterion Collection Blu-Ray which features a lovely, informative commentary track recorded in 2009 by director Peter Yates.