A.O. Scott reviews this bleak 1973 crime drama (which is really more of a thoughtful character study than anything else). The details in this film are exquisite, perfect: the cars, the sklyines, the empty bars, the Bruins game, the slush and damp pavement … You can almost smell Boston in this picture. Eddie Coyle is from Quincy, Massachusetts, a place I know well, just south of Boston (famous, naturally, for being where John and Abigail Adams lived). Robert Mitchum, in one of his best performances (he’s so weary, and yet still desperate to get out, like an animal), nails that Quincy accent, which I suppose is also a Boston accent, but there’s a lilt to it, a softness, that I recognize from my aunt/uncle/cousins who live in Quincy. Mitchum gets it just right. Peter Boyle is great as the sleazy bartender (what miserable eyes he has in this film, humorless eyes), and Richard Jordan makes a big impact as the federal agent who has made contacts in the Boston crime world. He’s wonderful. I said on Twitter last night that his face, Slavic-sharp cheekbones and wide planes – reminds me of Rudolf Nureyev’s face: there’s something about it that is a bit blank, a perfect canvas for an audience to paint things on. He is distant, a bit … he’s consumed with other things. Terrific actor. But Mitchum is the heart of it. I love the one scene in the morning with his Irish wife Sheila (played by Irene Carroll). They wash dishes and talk about what’s going on. He has a hearing coming up for one of his crimes, and doesn’t want to do any more time. His kids are almost teenagers. He’s 51. He can’t afford to do even more 2 years in jail. But I love how his wife deals with him, trying to get him to eat, which could be a Wife Cliche, but it isn’t. She’s in a pink checkered housedress, it’s morning, and she wants her husband to eat. This is how marriage works. There’s a familiarity between the two of them, and yet their lives hang in the balance. Mitchum takes hold of her to give her a kiss, and the kiss gets passionate (perhaps he realizes he doesn’t have that much time left), and she starts laughing, protesting against him, “It’s morning!!” Peter Yates then cuts to the next scene. I love that glimpse. Irene Carroll is not in the film much, but her presence is important.
Watching Robert Mitchum do anything is a master class in how to … well, act. He doesn’t appear, ever, to be DOING anything. This was true from the get-go with him. He strolls through movies, smoking, looking ahead with the heavy-lidded eyes, easy, natural, and either ominous or sexy, depending on the material. He could be either. Many actors don’t have that versatility. Or, their “sexuality” comes off as “ominous”, and therefore they cannot be believable as a regular romantic leading man. Mitchum wasn’t like that. He could be terrifying (as in Night of the Hunter; I still have nightmares about that guy), or sexy and romantic. He could mix it up. He could conduct himself, bringing this or that quality forward, but my analogy makes it seem deliberate or studied. Nothing he does is ever studied. This is a man who was a valid leading man for decades. It cannot be explained. All one can say is that Mitchum needed to be at the center. He’s too strong, too good, for anything else. He was the ultimate Alpha Male.
As David Thomson wrote (or, one of the many things he has written about Mitchum):
How can I offer this hunk as one of the best actors in the movies? Start by referring back to that dialogue [in Out of the Past]: it touches the intriguing ambiguity in Mitchum’s work, the idea of a man thinking and feeling beneath a calm exterior that there is no need to put “acting” on the surface. And for a big man, he is immensely agile, capable of unsmiling humor, menace, stoicism, and, above all, of watching other people as though he were waiting to make up his mind. Of course, Mitchum has been in bad films, when he slips into the weariness of someone who has read the script, but hopes it may be rewritten. But since the war, no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many different moods.
And here, as the sincerely tired and beaten-down Eddie Coyle, Mitchum has never been better.
The entire performance is great, but his monologue in the bowling alley is a pure example of why Mitchum is so great. Done mainly in one shot, with only a couple of reaction shots. (A lot of the scenes in Friends of Eddie Coyle play out in one shot: the two long conversations between Peter Boyle and Richard Jordan, shot usually from a bit of a distance, as they walk along a courtyard, or in the park: No closeups, no cutting away. It gives the film a feeling of reality, as though you are eavesdropping on something that is actually happening).
And here, watch how Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) puts the arrogant yet stupid gun-runner (Steven Keats) in his place. You can almost see (or at least I can imagine I can see), Keats the actor watching Mitchum the actor, thinking, “Holy shit, he is so good.” Holy shit, indeed. The monologue I’m talking about starts at around the 1 minute mark. It is rare today to let a scene go that long without a million cuts. To let someone just talk in that way. Movies today are poorer for it. This is acting, pure and simple. No tricks.
To quote David Thomson again on Mitchum: