The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains an iconic and worthwhile work.
Released at precisely the right moment—smack in the middle of the Hollywood revival of the ‘70s, sandwiched between the first two The Godfather films and just before the birth of the modern action thriller (1974’s Death Wish)—The Friends of Eddie Coyle casually straddles the line between pulpy genre fare and must-see part of cinematic history. It is among the best US-American gangster films, is a Mount Rushmore Boston film and is full of that characteristic grunge and masculine energy that all great ‘70s films have. There are barely any women in the cast, and the film is really about cars—loud, fast cars—(it is directed by Peter Yates, after all), and yet it is a Criterion Collection inclusion. That sums up The Friends of Eddie Coyle pretty well.
Robert Mitchum plays the titular Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a mid-level mobster in heavily Irish-American South Boston. He organizes arms deals to supply bank robberies, but the ATF has busted him and now he has to choose to return to prison or snitch on his colleagues. He decides to set up an arrogant young gunrunner named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) for trafficking in machine guns. The ATF pushes harder; they need more. So Coyle then gives up the bank robbers, who funnel cash to the top of the Boston gang hierarchy. Here is where he gets into real trouble; unbeknownst to Coyle, the ATF already knows about the bank robbers. Coyle (and the Boston mob) have been double-crossed by Dillon (played viciously by Peter Boyle), a gangster/bartender who has been working as an ATF informant for quite some time. Dillon frames Coyle to the mob bosses for fingering the bank robbers, dooming Coyle while shielding himself.
What elevates The Friends of Eddie Coyle into a memorable film—and one persistently homaged by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck—are two elements: ambitious set pieces and contrasting colors and textures. The set pieces are magnificent. For instance, the arrest of Brown at a Boston train station puts on full display Yates’ mastery with car chases and car-based stunts. It is the sort of analog, tactile filmmaking that really has disappeared in 2018, even if the cinephile crowd’s handwringing over the hegemony of digital methods is often hyperbolic and screechy. The assassination of Coyle happens after Dillon gets him sloppily drunk at a Bruins game at the Boston Garden, with the camera panning from Mitchum and Boyle to the action on the ice and the throbbing cheers of the crowd in a vérité-esque fashion. Who would dare to stage a scene of their film during a live sporting event?
The camerawork for The Friends of Eddie Coyle contrasts colors and textures with aplomb. Gunrunner Brown drives a bright, beautiful muscle car whose paint scheme is often photographed in full sun, the blue sky behind it as the light glares off the windshield. Meanwhile, Dillon and Coyle both drive modest, earth-toned vehicles that are displayed at night or under gray clouds. The interior walls are always dirty, the greasy floors look ready to suck up the shoes of every cast member walking across them and the grungy bar where Dillon pulls pints is so lived-in the viewer can nearly smell it through the screen and the 35 years since the film was shot.
This is the ‘70s revival at its finest: on-location filming that indelibly establishes the film in a specific place and time. Yates’ Boston is dark and dank, transgressive and dangerous but in a more subtle way than Scorsese’s New York from Taxi Driver is dark and transgressive or Friedkin’s New York from The French Connection is dank and dangerous. Coyle lives in a confusing milieu, but it is not as confounding as the Los Angeles of The Long Goodbye or Night Moves. The lack of women in Yates’ Boston is odd and troubling but also not so unusual for the films of the era. These films are clearly in conversation with one another and working within a self-created grammar for capturing the look and feel of the city of the ‘70s. That type of US-American city is gone, but at least the films remain.
This is very much a film—and a cinematic decade—about macho men, their virility and their violent tendencies. In spite of this, The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains an iconic and worthwhile work fully meriting its Criterion inclusion. It is also an archival document preserving the memory of the city before “broken windows” policies, the crack epidemic and gentrification changed downtown forever.