One of Robert Mitchum’s last great roles was playing a down-on-his-luck hoodlum in this gritty 1973 crime film.
There was an all-too brief renaissance in American film in the 1970s, when writers and directors were free to experiment with radically different styles and subjects. But even in this historical context, Peter Yates’ 1973 crime film The Friends of Eddie Coyle is unique.
Robert Mitchum plays the aging Boston crook and gambler Eddie Coyle, who is facing possible jail time for a petty bootlegging rap. Worried about his wife and kids having to go on welfare, he does some business with a gunrunner, which attracts the attention of an ice-cold detective (played by the excellent Richard Jordan) who wants Eddie to snitch on the gunrunner in exchange for some help with his court case. Unfortunately the guns end up being used in a series of violent bank robberies (with the chief robber played by the wonderfully creepy Alex Rocco), and this puts Eddie in a perilous position.
This is one of those movies that could only have been made in the 1970s. The main character is a loser, and not a very lovable one. And Yates doesn’t follow the usual crime film trajectory—he takes his time establishing character, and introduces new plot threads without a lot of explanation, leaving it up to the audience to make connections. Shot on location during a Boston autumn, the picture has a gritty visual style matching its tough, despairing view of humanity.
Mitchum is nothing less than superb in the title role, and it demonstrates his integrity as an actor that he would agree to play such a non-heroic part. Shambling wearily through the lower-class urban environment, slumped over a drink at a bar or coffee at a cheap diner, Coyle is a rough customer who has seen too many things, his expressions conveying impatience with his lot combined with a lurking potential for malevolence, albeit the petty kind. No overacting here, no star personality, just a spot-on portrayal of a mixed-up old hoodlum who wants out.
The film’s naturalism will be a source of continual surprise for those viewers who are accustomed to larger-than-life gangsters or wise-cracking cops. Even the gripping bank robbing scenes have an ugly, everyday flavor of unglamorous lowlife. The plot doesn’t go the way you might expect, either. A long late sequence involving Coyle and his mob-connected bartender friend (played by Peter Boyle) at a hockey game, is a perfectly constructed set piece. Boyle is very good in this film, as are the numerous supporting players. The grim meaning of the movie’s title hits you in the end like a freight train. This film’s sadness and bitter wisdom of the streets makes it one of a kind.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is available on DVD.