The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

For someone who loves crime drama, downbeat ’70s cinema, and stories of doomed losers as much as I do, it took me an inexplicably long time to get around to seeing Peter Yates’ foundational tale of a bottom-feeding Boston mob hanger-on.  The Friends of Eddie Coyle never seemed to crop up on television when I was younger, and a concatenation of circumstances kept it off DVD until a feature-rich Criterion release finally came out a few years ago; now that I’ve seen it, I feel almost, well, criminal for not having tracked it down before now.  As a pure pulp character study, as an example of the scruffy realism of 1970s crime films, and as a movie that almost perfectly understands the role of fate, of bad luck, of unintended circumstances in noir, it’s close to perfect.

Eddie Coyle is the man at the center of the film, and Robert Mitchum is the man who brings him to an enervated, desperate and completely compelling life.  Coyle is one of those career criminals whose circumstances explain why being a criminal isn’t much of a career:  he’s been at it his whole life, but has little to show for it but a shithole of an apartment, a fair fat Irish dumpling of a wife, and a couple of kids who stand little chance of living a better life than he had.  He’s sort of a gunrunner, but he’s really more of a middleman; his talent, if he can be said to have one, is that he’s so uniquely unqualified to do anything other than hang around with other lowlifes, the practical result of which is that he always seems to know who’s doing what.  He knows a guy who sells guns — a callow prick in a brown leather jacket named Jackie Brown (one of many not-yet-ironic monikers the flick offers up) — and he knows a guy who buys guns — a efficient, murderous, and oddly gregarious bank robber named Jimmy Scalise.  It is on the margins of the money to be made from putting these dirtbags together that Eddie Coyle makes his living.

Such are the “friends” of the title, the only ones Eddie can ever aspire to have, that he is quite accustomed to taking heaps of abuse from everyone he meets, because, well, that’s just the way the game is played.  Eddie picked up his nickname, “Fingers”, from having his digits permanently disfigured after leaving some friends holding the bag.  Once he offered to pitch in when someone was needed to drive a truckload of stolen watches; now he’s facing time in jail for doing a favor for those friends.  Closing in on 60 and with no other way to earn his daily bread, Eddie doesn’t feel up to doing the years, though his friends expect him to be a stand-up guy and take what’s coming.  It’s then that another “friend” — one equally indifferent to Eddie’s real interests — steps in:  police detective Dave Foley (!), another callow prick in a brown leather jacket who strings Eddie along with the promise of dropped charges and continued freedom if he hands over someone higher up on the ladder of crime.

The theme of the oppressed kicking downward saturates The Friends of Eddie Coyle:  Foley is tangled up in bureaucracy and the pressure to make a case, so he steps on Eddie hard to deliver the bad guys.  The ruthless and brutal gang of holdup men headed by Scalise are forever hounded by the law, but greedy to make one last hit, so they step on Eddie hard to provide them with clean, untraceable guns.  Eddie is practically the low man on the totem pole, but even he tries to salvage a scrap of tough-guy dignity as he lopes around all aching knees and alchohol-poisoned blood:  he pressures Jackie Brown to get him the guns as quickly as possible, telling him grim tales (drawn from his own sorry history) of what will happen if he lets down the mob; Brown, too, kicks hard on the people who need him, dripping with scorn for the radical couple trying to buy a batch of M-16s and the amateurish soldiers trying to sell them to him.  In the midst of it all, pushing and being pushed, is Peter Boyle as Dillon, who puts up the front of a hapless bartender on the fringe of the criminal underworld, but who is actually far more sinister and resourceful than he seems.

In a film full of outstanding performances, it is Mitchum’s gruff, scrabbling, impossibly tragic and curiously dignified portrayal of Eddie Coyle that holds the film together.  Mitchum had turned in a handful of terrific performances by 1973, most of them in noir films that were not yet highly esteemed by American critics, but he wasn’t lucky in his career, and was starring in a lot of crappy second-tier studio pictures by the time he landed The Friends of Eddie Coyle; there is something terribly knowing in the way he shambles about, living on cheap beer and whatever street food he can pick up as he drifts through the day, making a meager living doing the only thing he knows and hoping against hope that it will lead to some kind of payoff.  25 years before, in Out of the Past, Mitchum had played a character as fated to die as Eddie Coyle, but he had not lived — in his body, in his mind, in his life — enough to bring to Jeff Bailey the tragic depths, the long face and short hopes of Eddie Coyle.

Some critics have singled out the elaborately planned robberies by Scalise’s crew as a weakness of Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I can’t see them that way.  They’re so well-staged, so creepy, so deadly-perfect (at times they play like something out of  one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels), and so immediate that they work on a purely cinematic level; Alex Rocco (who’s almost literally playing himself) and Joe Santos as the jovial Artie Van are perfect in their portrayal as men who are grimly good at their job, trying to frame themselves as regular guys while living lives that can only end in bad or worse; and the danger they present throws Eddie’s situation into sharp relief.  Peter Boyle, who was as reliably excellent as any actor of his day, is in fact far more threatening, as it turns out, to Eddie, but at least gives him the dignity of a decent send-off and a quiet death, in stark contrast to the nasty fate Scalise’s men hand to an overeager bank employee.  Scalise’s mob also serves as an interesting contrast in personalities:  Rocco’s clever, precise, bank robber might be the one you admire when contrasted with Eddie’s shambolic half-competence, but Mitchum’s the one you’d rather hang out with.

Yates makes excellent use of his Boston locations, and whether intentional or coincidental, the ’70s elements of The Friends of Eddie Coyle are inseparable elements of its overall feel.  He gets every detail of the lifestyle of the perpetual criminal on the make exactly right:  even the costumes, of young men trying to look hip, old men trying to look tough, and tough men trying to look invisible, is perfect.  It’s a delight for gearheads, with Steven Keats’ Jackie Brown, not quite the inveterate hustler he thinks he is, drawing far too much attention to himself with his tricked-out, way-too-obvious muscle car, and the more marginalized hoods getting by with whatever cars they can afford to keep running.  Coyle’s Boston isn’t one of famous historical sites, tourist attractions, and recognizable landmarks (the Bruins game he takes in is clearly one of his rare special treats); the script again gets it just right that he lives in an edge city of suburbs, quiet empty parking lots, supermarket dumpsters, transit stations, and anywhere else he can hope to do his business without attracting the attention of the police.  It’s neither glamorous nor seedy:  it’s just dull, practical, reliable, a mirror of the only personal assets he has.  And yet the film’s grace is in its recognition that even the inevitable and predictable death of Eddie Coyle, a man of few talents and few redeeming qualities, a man who falls half-drunk into a bed he’d rather not lie in, has pride and worth, and that his leaving the world is a loss.


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