The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains one of the most influential crime films to come out of the ’70s and there were plenty. Unlike many crime films it’s about down and out gangsters who are scrapping to get by and will sell their friends out to make a buck. It’s based on a novel by George V. Higgins whose dialogue is almost replicated verbatim in the finished film and whose novel Cogan’s Trade was updated and filmed as Killing Them Softly magnificently recently.
Robert Mitchum in one of his most nuanced and powerful performances in his long career stars at the title character. Eddie Coyle is an ageing low-level gun-runner for Boston mobsters and to attempt to get leniency for his crimes he is forced to be informant for a ATF Agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) but little does he know that the guy who sets up all jobs for Coyle; Dillon (Peter Boyle) is also an informant. Coyle has been supply bank robbers with guns who have been going on a streak of bank robberies and it’s only a matter of time that everything comes crashing down.
The film is first and foremost a fatalistic mood piece and from the beginning you have a sense of dread it’s not going to end well for all those concerned. Back in the ’70s you could get away and be successful with a film about no characters who are not automatically likeable and the endings didn’t have to be happy with a nice bow on it; oh how times have changed. Peter Yates who was still hot off the enormous success of Bullitt 5 years earlier takes a very stripped down approach to his direction.
Victor J. Kemper shot the film who is one of the most unsung cinematographers of the ’70s who shot Dog Day Afternoon but also Slap Shot which is similarly about down and out people just in the world of Hockey not the organised crime world. He lights everything so the characters almost looked diseased and the colour palette are mostly dark greens and greys mostly. The Blu-Ray cover is almost too colourful to reflect the feel of the film but it’s based on the original poster.
Mitchum whose screen presence commands the film but in the end you can’t help but feel the vulnerability his portrayals in the film’s final moments. Peter Boyle as Dillon is just exceptional casting he perfectly captures the deceiving nature of his character. Steven Keats as Jackie Brown (Tarantino lifted the name from this for his film) inhabits the right amount of dumb arrogance the role requires.
Few crime films ever have this feel of authenticity which may be down to Higgin’s own knack for writing how people and men speak in day-to-day life, this is very much a world without women. The more recent Higgins’ adaptation Killing Them Softly and especially Scoot McNairy’s performance share this authenticity. The film was also shot on location in Boston and some of the cast may or may not have had connections to real-life mobsters. Mitchum wanted to meet the notorious Whitey Bulger for research but Higgins advised him not too.
Many films of the ’70s have aged enormously well especially crime films like The French Connection or Night Moves. However The Friends of Eddie Coyle both the novel and film ushered in a new way of telling crime stories in a more realistic fashion which shows us it isn’t all the glitz and glamour we are shown too shown on screen. The film and book influenced Elmore Leonard and Tarantino enormously along with countless other filmmakers and writers. It’s been long unavailable in the UK but the new Blu-Ray looks great and includes a 80 minute interview from the ’90s where Yates discusses his entire career and an insightful new interview with critic Glenn Kenny on the novel and film. It also includes a length booklet on the film which includes new and old writing.