In the great legions of Hollywood legends, one person I have never seen the appeal for is Robert Mitchum. Sure, his performance in The Night of the Hunter is brilliant, but I just never saw what was so excellent about him. Despite years of great film noir in his heyday, it was a performance he gave when he was nearing sixty that converted me to the Church of Mitchum. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a gritty and fascinating crime film that manages to both stop and break your heart.
In the central (and titular role) we have Mitchum as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle. In most crime films, we are introduced to characters who are in the peak of their criminal enterprise – sneaky, bold and sinister. However, Eddie Coyle is the person we never see – the former criminal now living out his days, regretting his actions and trying to not make money, but avoid wasting his life away in prison. We are never given the real details of Eddie’s past – we do get a glimpse or two into his life (mostly delivered in spine-chilling monologues delivered by Mitchum), but most of all, the driving force of Eddie’s existence is shown to us in relative real-time, as the events over a few days tell us so much about his loss of faith in life and disappointment in himself in general. It is a terribly heartbreaking performance from Mitchum, and the fact that he was capable of winning me over with such subdued and calm work truly speaks volumes about his talents at sedate performances, and the way director Peter Yates can extract so much from so little.
In the supporting capacity, there are three actors who deserve spectacular praise – Peter Boyle, a man whose film career never truly took off, but found great success in his later years in Everybody Loves Raymond, is fantastic as the conflicted and very sinister Dillon. Much like with Eddie, we don’t know much about Dillon. However, we want to know why Dillon is who he is – he clearly has a dark past, and while we see Eddie as a tragic figure, Dillon is the one we truly see as the most mysterious – we never get any answers as to his past, and maybe that just adds to the allure that Boyle brings to the character. Steven Keats as Jackie Brown is absolutely a star-making turn, and I was horrified to discover that Keats had his life tragically ended far too soon, and with a performance like this, it is disappointing he didn’t get better work. Finally, Richard Jordan plays the typical sleazeball cop, Dave Foley, who is framed to make us feel uneasy – is he a heroic and brave police officer? Or is he as corrupt as the men he is trying to catch. The quartet is very strong, and while we do have a legend in the title role, this film is truly less about Eddie Coyle and much more about his Friends.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a truly captivating masterpiece of crime thrillers. It is both action-packed – the first bank heist is truly a heart-stopping affair, and absolutely heartbreaking. It is very much Shakespearean in its take of having a tragic figure in the lead role who we can’t help feeling bad for, despite any of his past sins, and surrounding him with characters who he trusts, but we know are truly out to get him somehow. Much like a Shakespearean tragedy, it has a terribly sad and very ambigious ending, and one that will lend itself to interpretation and discussion for many years afterwards.
I think The Friends of Eddie Coyle is perfect for someone who likes thrillers and crime dramas, but is growing weary of the same macho predictability will truly appreciate this very different look at crime films. Be prepared, while it does have the classic elements of a fun 1970s crime thriller, it also has the emotional impact of a heartbreaking drama. However, it is truly an exceptional film.