Film Recommendation of the Day 2/09: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Film archivist, programmer, and critic Kent Jones wrote about the indelible 70s film The Friends of Eddie Coyle stating, “Young film fans raised in the multiplex era might look back and lament the fact that no one is making movies like The Friends of Eddie Coyle anymore. The truth is that they never did. There’s only this one.” And it is true that you’d be hard pressed to find a film that adopts such a fascinating and inimitable atmosphere of the inner workings of the criminal underworld of Boston. This nuanced film adapted from George V. Higgins’ crime novel of the same name takes an unconventional route that never concentrates on familiarizing the audience with the explicitly intimate settings and characters. Instead we are injected deeply into various criminal networking and bargaining tactics, either between gun runners and wannabe bank robbers or a cop and his informant “stoolie,” that highlight an overarching theme of survival in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The film lacks a typical narrative compass (or as others put it “rhetorical underlining”) leaving the audience to their own facilities to interpret, decipher, and actively engage in the intricately detailed underworld where dialogue is the main driving force in the film.

Recently deceased director Peter Yates (R.I.P.) was a fitting choice for The Friends of Eddie Coyle despite the action that defined his previous works, such as Bullitt (1968) and Robbery (1967), taking a back seat to the kinetic excitement that can be felt between each of the characters decisions, either out of desperation or survival. Though there are select moments of the Yates action touch, including a fast-paced parking lot arrest and two impeccably executed bank robberies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an extremely rare film that focuses on characters, choice, and consequence in a very real pseudo-documentary style. Survival and fatalism are the undercurrents in this fragmented moral universe, which Yates and novel author Higgins use to focus on the faithfulness and realism of the characters to reveal the complexities of this universe to the audience. One of Robert Mitchum’s most memorable lines in the film reveals these themes by saying, “All you got to know is that I told the man he can depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I’ve learned: if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”

Of course, such a unique film has had many followers trying to replicate the dialogue heavy immersion into a world unknown to the common cinema attendee. One look to Steven Keats’ gun-runner Jackie Brown will tell you that The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the sort of film Quentin Tarantino still wishes he could perfectly deliver despite some admirable attempts within the construction of Pulp Fiction (1994) and, of course, Jackie Brown (1996). Even the city of Boston as a setting hasn’t been used in such a full and valuable way even when you include Starting Over (1979), The Verdict (1982), The Departed (2006), and most recently Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010), which even references The Friends of Eddie Coyle in a quick audio segment. But very few filmmakers have been able to fully adopt the understated, even distinctive, style Peter Yates was able to give to the impressive crime expose that has yet to be repeated. It is the melancholy mood throughout the film that makes it a rare example of a crime film willing to explore the most extreme and tangible elements of the underworld. And with an extremely talented cast, featuring Peter Boyle, Steven Keats, the great Alex Rocco who most recognize as Moe Green in The Godfather (1972), and the exceptional Robert Mitchum in the title role, The Friends of Eddie Coyle becomes an ensemble tour de force. The Friends of Eddie Coyle shows that you don’t necessarily have to have guns blazing in order to build kinetic energy, and you can instead focus on how dialogue reveals, guides, and defines the characters. In the end dialogue can be action.

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