The Film: 5/5
In the Boston underworld, Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is known as a stand-up guy. His colleagues call him “Eddie Fingers” because he once got his hand slammed in a drawer by some unsavory associates, giving the old timer a new set of knuckles in the process. Coyle has to be a jack of many trades in the Beantown mob, but his primary business is supplying guns he procures through his younger partner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats). His current best customers are a gang of bank robbers led by Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco) and Artie Van (Joe Santos) that have to abandon their arms after every holdup. He’s done his share of prison time and has no intention of going back now that he has a wife (Helena Carroll) and three children to look after, but when he gets busted driving a truck full of stolen Canadian Club whiskey in New Hampshire, Coyle is forced to become an informant for ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) in the hope that he can avoid a sentence that could stretch to five years. In order to keep from getting sent back to the clink, Coyle must sell out both Jackie and the Scalise gang, but his life – whether it be on the outside or in – isn’t going to mean much once word gets to the elusive Boston crime boss known to everyone as “the Man” that this low-life nobody is informing on his fellow criminals for the law.
One of the greatest necessities of effective storytelling is that the characters must define and propel the action, and not the other way around. Based on the novel by the celebrated crime novelist George V. Higgins (whose work was last adapted for the screen in 2012’s Killing Them Softly, one of that year’s best and most underrated films in spite of its odd retitling), The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the most realistic depictions of blue collar criminal life and the strained and mendacious, but regrettably necessary, relationship between the right and wrong sides of the law. Best known as the director of the stellar Steve McQueen action hit Bullitt, Peter Yates is at his absolute best here, crafting a bleak and merciless thriller where the outcome only becomes certain once you grow to understand the people involved in the story. Working with screenwriter Paul Monash, who also produced, Yates brings the world of Higgins’ novel to vivid life and places greater emphasis on creating an immersive and authentic working class landscape where the characters could plausibly exist than on delivering the thrills that audiences crave.
This is a story where relationships are important but loyalties buckle easily when the slightest pressure is applied, and Yates and Monash understand this all too well. The Boston where Eddie Coyle goes to work every day trying to make ends and keep his nose clean is one anyone from the city could recognize and connection to because Yates and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon) shot the film on location in several areas around the actual city. They take the production to the nondescript banks, grocery stores, train stations, and public parks where criminal activity is often going on with average ordinary citizens blissfully unaware. Monash’s adaptation of the Higgins novel retains the author’s gift for dialogue that sounds natural and genuine and doesn’t serve to merely advance the narrative, but to give the viewer a window into how these people think, operate, and relate to one another.
The houses mostly have wood-paneled interiors and could have busted hot water heaters and a lack of food in the fridge. Art director and production designer Gene Callahan (The Stepford Wives) did a fantastic job bringing a sense of hard-edged kitchen sink realism to the sets. Dave Grusin’s (The Nickel Ride) jazzy score, infused with a healthy dose of streetwise funk, pulsates with the rhythm and poetry of the world of dangerous and doomed men, and the expert editing by documentary veteran Patricia Lewis Jaffe keeps the pacing razor-taut and furious with respect to the characters and the dilemmas in which each person finds themselves. There are several memorable set-pieces that positively rack the nerves because we are never quite sure what the outcome could be, but the possible threat of violence and death hangs over everything the characters say and do; one false move, one misspoken sentiment, and that could be all she wrote. It’s rare when a movie can keep you on the literal edge of your seat, but Friends of Eddie Coyle is never short on such suspenseful moments.
Yates’ film starred iconic cinema tough guy Robert Mitchum in what is undoubtedly his finest performance, and at the point in both his life and career when this project came along, the man was ready to play Eddie Coyle. The role required an actor who embodied Coyle’s world-weary resignation, aged wisdom, and stringent devotion to a moral code that has kept him alive and employed in criminal activity with strength and authenticity. Mitchum, growing weary of being typecast as the laconic badass in every generic crime and western picture that got tossed onto a studio development exec’s desk, brings a battered authority to the role and really nails down the character’s Boston accent by incorporating it into his own whiskey-aged vocals with nuance. Coyle isn’t an action hero, but an old man who has long comprehended the choices he has made in life and the people with whom he has to do business on a regular basis and has to exist in that world without rocking the boat. Mitchum gives what may be the best performance of his storied career.
Coyle’s fatal mistake is overestimating the value of the experience and intelligence his years in the underworld have brought him. When he finally realizes that he’s a small-timer for a good reason, it’s far too late. In a more conventional film, Eddie and ATF agent Foley – played by Richard Jordan, one of American cinema’s most unsung and underappreciated character actors, in one of the best performances of a distinguished career that should have made him a star – would have bonded early on, developed a trusting relationship, and teamed up in the finale to battle the forces of the mob in a showdown full of pummeling fists and blazing fists. This is not a conventional story; to Foley, a low-level slob like Eddie Coyle is a nobody who might have some useful information, and that’s if the Feds don’t already have it (which they usually do). Foley isn’t a cold-blooded bastard, but a man trying to do his job to bring down the mob. He’s the good guy in this scenario, and if a tip from Coyle can bring him a good arrest with an easy conviction on the side, so be it. That doesn’t make these men friends or even allies with overlapping motivations. That’s the nature of this business, one that the film never tires of reminding us – sell out your friends, and the same could very well happen to you. Coyle is expendable. If he goes down, someone else will take his place and life will go on as if nothing ever threatened to derail it.
Mitchum and Jordan are surrounded by a gangbuster of a supporting cast comprised of unsung acting talent that it took years, and for some even decades, for audiences to truly appreciate. Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver) is terrific as a syndicate man and another of Foley’s informers put in a very difficult position in the finale. Alex Rocco (The Godfather) and Joe Santos (The Rockford Files) impress greatly as the leaders of the stick-up crew with whom Coyle does regular business. One of my favorite performances in the film was given by the late Steven Keats, probably best known to contemporary as Paul Kersey’s son-in-law in the original Death Wish, as Coyle’s cocky, but canny and vigilant protégé Jackie Brown. The cast is rounded out by smaller turns from Mitchell Ryan (Electra Glide in Blue) as Foley’s superior, James Tolkan (Back to the Future) as a mysterious representative of “the Man”, Matthew Cowles (Shutter Island) and Margaret Ladd (Mozart in the Jungle) as a pair of impulsive kids trying to secure weapons from Jackie for their own robbery, and Michael McLeery (Mother’s Day) as a nervous punk who shows up in the final scenes to serve a purpose I dare not spoil but will easily become clear to you once he makes his first appearance if you understand what must be the logical conclusion to The Friends of Eddie Coyle….the only conclusion that could make any sense.
As part of its endlessly amazing Masters of Cinema, Eureka presents The Friends of Eddie Coyle in a crisp and strong AVC encoded 1080p high-definition transfer in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Texture and detail are sharp and distinct, with vivid colors that pop and blend and an accurate amount of grain that gives the presentation a rich filmic quality. After comparing screenshots, I can’t detect much difference between Eureka’s transfer and the one Criterion prepared for their Region A Blu-ray release from early last year, but it would be difficult for anyone to improve on such a masterful restoration effort. Eureka did improve on the Criterion disc on the audio front with an uncompressed 24-bit English PCM 2.0 track that features a clear and equalized dialogue mix and a discreet but effective exhibition of the Grusin score. Manual volume adjustment is often required in order for you to hear the hushed dialogue, and there are moments when background ambience makes it challenging for certain lines to come through discernably. I would chalk this up as a flaw in the original sound mix, so chances are any additional clean-up would do much good. English subtitles have also been provided.
Eureka didn’t secure the commentary track with Peter Yates from the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions, but they compensated by providing a career-spanning video interview with the director (77 minutes) that was conducted by film critic Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theater (currently the BFI Southbank) in 1996. The discussion between Malcolm and Yates is very wide-ranging and covers the highlights of Yates’ cinematic body of work in great detail and with some surprising and honest anecdotes from the celebrated director. Since the interview was shot on video almost twenty years ago, picture and sound quality can sometimes falter. American film critic Glenn Kenny flies solo in his own video appreciation of Eddie Coyle (22 minutes) that was shot in New York in 2015 and offers a thorough and insightful look back at the film and its power to rivet and enthrall after more than four decades since its theatrical release. Eureka has also included a 44-page booklet containing a new essay about Eddie Coyle written by Mike Sutton and a 1973 interview with Yates conducted by Andrew C. Bobrow that is devoted to the making of the film from page to celluloid.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a masterpiece of 1970’s downbeat crime cinema and a feast of terrific acting, writing, direction, music, and cinematography. Peter Yates’ best film as director is also a timeless classic that would be pretty difficult to make in this day and age. Luckily, the good people at Eureka have shown this title the respect it deserves with a fantastic high-definition transfer and some meaty supplements. This latest addition to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line is already topping my list of 2016’s best Blu-ray releases. For lovers of intense, character-driven thrillers that are hard to shake once they end, The Friends of Eddie Coyle gets my absolute highest recommendation.