The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973); Dir. Peter Yates

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:

Untouchable.

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14 Responses to The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973); Dir. Peter Yates

  1. This is a great film worth revisiting from time to time. Not a false note in the whole show and the film doesn’t show its age. Memorable!

  2. sheila says:

    Stephen – I agree. It’s a good gritty drama with this overlay of moral ambivalence and tiredness that, perhaps, is very much of its time – but it’s really of all times. I love the little conversation about Bobby Orr as they watch the hockey game. Memories of my own childhood when Orr dominated!

    I like how the plot is almost secondary. It’s really about the characters (which is reflected in the title of the movie, if you think about it). You really get to know these people. I so appreciate that kind of filmmaking.

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  4. Bruce Reid says:

    My father, born and raised in Quincy, couldn’t get into The Town just because of the hard “z” whenever it was mentioned. Accents have never been deal-breakers for me*, so I let it slide.

    If you didn’t get a chance to read the booklet Criterion put together for this film, they included a magnificent contemporary portrait of Mitchum written for Rolling Stone; an excerpt can be found on their website.

    Even by his own high standards Mitchum is lovely here (and, regardless of my earlier comment, does nail the accent), so desperate despite, on the surface, seeming to lack the energy to rise up from the diner tables that are his workplace and the bar stools that have become his purgatories. I’m not an actor, but it seems it would be easy to play up the sentiment or sneaky heroism in Coyle; Mitchum has none of it.

    And while the plot does border on the secondary, catching this earlier this year scratched a little itch that had bothered me for decades, a childhood memory of a film whose bank robber protagonists (as I’d recalled) wore transparent, distorting masks that I found absolutely terrifying. So much so, seven- or eight-year-old me had had all trace of Mitchum’s sad lead turn shoved out of my mind. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready for it; Mitchum’s despairing world-weariness is battered and bred from the bone, not a deflective shield tossed up by youthful self-absorption. It’s adult, in a painful, haunted way so few of our actors (and even fewer of our movies) can bother to notice. Children should know Mitchum best as Night of the Hunter’s boogeyman**; later, when we’re ready, he’s there to show us the really scary stuff.

    *It’s probably just what you grew up with, though. I’m as tetchy as all get-out when Nevada gets mispronounced. Speaking of David Thomson, he offered a helpful little mnemonic; it’s a short second “a,” to echo sadder or madder or badder.

    **A cheap contrast to set up my ending point; naturally the film is one of our great treasures, and Mitchum nothing less than remarkable as Harry Powell.

  5. sheila says:

    Bruce – I am very very touchy myself about the Boston accent – and while Mitchum wasn’t full-on Hahvahd Yahd here, he had enough of the flavor of it that it was quite convincing. The way he said the word “for”, for instance. Kind of opening up that vowel sound. Hard to make sound right!! He sounded a bit like my family. And Quincy, no less – what are the odds? I have a similar nails-on-chalkboard reaction as your father to bad attempts at that accent.

    I haven’t seen the Criterion copy – I would love to get a look at that booklet, and will certainly look up the piece you mentioned.

    I love your last comment: // Children should know Mitchum best as Night of the Hunter’s boogeyman**; later, when we’re ready, he’s there to show us the really scary stuff.//

    That is so so true. I believe my first encounter with Mitchum was Night of the Hunter – and so then afterwards I was amazed in performances where he showed either how gentle he could be, or ambivalent – instead of flat-out evil. I think “ambivalence” is one of his key qualities, and man is that hard to define (or counterfeit). He embodies it.

  6. Dan says:

    The movie was based on George V. Higgins’ first (and arguably best) novel of the same name. I don’t know that the plot is secondary – I think that because it’s related to us (in both the novel and the film) by Higgins’ lovely dialogue it seems secondary, lurking there in the background, until the awful gut punch of the ending when we see how tightly plotted it was all along.

  7. sheila says:

    Maybe “secondary’ is the wrong word. The plot is very important: this guy needs a way OUT. He is determined – you get that with every weary look from Mitchum. But I suppose what I meant by that is that the plot serves the character as opposed to the other way around. My “way in” is through the psychology of these people – Eddie Coyle especially – and the plot did not betray him. It did not “boss” him. It was just right. That makes the story a tragedy, in my opinion, as bad as this guy could be, as criminal as he was. Because he wanted out. If I had to name his objective in every single scene (and this is an acting term: “play your objective!”) it was: “Get me OUT of this.” Mitchum never played another objective – which gives the film its arc, a beautiful tragic arc … but the plot was just enough that it started to feel inevitable (you just know that he shouldn’t go to that Bruins game) – but not too bossy that the characters get lost. It’s a hard balancing act, one that most films in this genre completely miss.

  8. Dan says:

    I think we’re saying the same thing different ways. The plot is not ‘there’ in the way that is in other crime films – no big car chases or gun battles thrusting in your face.

  9. sheila says:

    Right. And enough time to get to KNOW all of them. Like Peter Boyle and his thing, and Steven Keats and the others.

    But then there’s the fact that we don’t actually see Eddie Coyle dead … I found myself (stupidly) hoping that he had somehow made it, that he would pull through … But that was ridiculous of me. Of course he died, and of course the people surrounding him didn’t care. His kids would care, his wife would care, but they were far far away from him in that moment.

  10. sheila says:

    I should definitely read the book though!

  11. Dan says:

    The book is excellent, and Higgins had several others in the same vein i.e gritty Boston crime novels heavy on the dialogue.

  12. sheila says:

    My dad probably has copies. He bought any book that had anything to do with Boston. I will definitely look for them.

  13. CS says:

    Thanks for this post.

    Hopefully not too away from the topic – What is your opinion of A.O. Scott?

    I really enjoy his work, and have been introduced to films through him. Did you see the Times Magazine piece on Olivier Assayas?

  14. sheila says:

    CS – I like AO Scott a lot. I haven’t seen the Assayas piece, will have to check it out.

    Thanks!

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