Thirty years before The Departed and Gone Baby Gone, director Peter Yates and writer-producer Paul Monash helped codify the look and feel of a Boston crime movie with their adaptation of George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. The film stars Robert Mitchum as an aging, compromised fetch-and-carry man for the mob, but the real main character of the film is Boston itself, which Yates explores from the suburbs to the crumbling industrial sectors. In its eye-catching mix of sunshine and steely gray—and old-world elegance and urban rot—The Friends Of Eddie Coyle seems to offer its characters a choice. Two worlds coexist in the Boston of 1973, and all Mitchum and his friends have to do is step from one to the other.
Much of the movie is about their attempts to do just that. Mitchum plays a broken-down flunky who missed his prime earning years because he took the rap for a crime, but now that he’s facing another stretch in prison, he’s ready to talk to any badge-sporting bureaucrat who offers him a deal. And he isn’t the only one. The worse crime imaginable among Mitchum’s cronies is to be a snitch, yet the cops are starting to get so many tips that inside information is losing its bargaining value. What the law really wants to know about is the string of daytime bank robberies engineered by the ruthless Alex Rocco. If Mitchum is willing to give Rocco up, he might be able to live out the rest of his life in his cozy home with his wife and kid, instead of dying behind bars.
Over the decades, one of the main criticisms of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle has been that Yates and Monash spend too much time with Rocco and his crew, and break up a perfectly good character sketch with lengthy heist sequences that now look dated and suspense-free. But while it’s true that the heists run too long, they do serve a thematic and dramatic purpose, in that they show how carefully laid plans can go awry and explode into fatal violence. The only real problem with Yates’ efforts to steer the movie toward conventional ’70s cops-and-robbers fare is that it steals screen time from Mitchum, who’s so compelling as a pragmatic sad-sack, and it robs the audience of more opportunities to hear Higgins’ colorfully profane dialogue. So much about The Friends Of Eddie Coyle feels locked into 1973—from Dave Grusin’s jazz-fusion score to the shaggy hair and wide collars—but the dialogue is almost David Mamet-like in its specificity and rhythm, and it remains bracing even now. Even the most casual conversations in Eddie Coyle support the movie’s theme. Everything the film is about can be summed up in one young gunrunner’s response when a friend asks if he still wants to be a writer. He shrugs and says, “Nah, that was before I heard about makin’ money.”
Key features: Yates’ shaky but informative commentary track.