It’s funny sometimes how the image one gets in one’s mind when they hear about a film forever is often exactly the inverse of what the film actually is.
I’d heard vaguely of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle; I knew it was one of Mitchum’s last great lead performances, that it was considered one of the great Boston crime films a sub genre that any reader of this site knows I have an affinity for and that it was the story of a low level crook having to turn rat to save himself.
I had expected a bruiser of a film about the tragedy of Eddie Coyle having to betray his friends and turn rat. What I didn’t expect was a film as cold, lonely and bitter as The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. This is noir at it’s darkest, where nobody has a chance. The bitter truth at the core of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is that the tragedy at the center of the film isn’t that Eddie must betray his friends, it is that he didn’t take the opportunity to betray his "friends" much much sooner.
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle follows Mitchum as a low level hood who is coming up for sentencing after he was caught transporting stolen goods in New Hampshire. Desperate to avoid prison time he cuts a deal to turn over a gun runner to a federal agent in exchange for leniency. Tragically unaware that he’s about to get fucked over by everyone he knows.
Robert Mitchum at his most ursine holds the movie together. He doesn’t play Coyle as a badass, far from it, in fact I doubt I’ve ever seen Mitchum in a movie were he has less control of the situation and I’ve seen Ryan’s Daughter. Instead he plays Coyle as a kind hearted schlub whose biggest concern about going to prison is that his kids don’t get made fun of.
Yates gives the film an effortless authenticity as well as an admirable economy. His Boston is a cold harsh place of low grey buildings and ominous patches of open land. The people in it just as harsh and hard but completely real. Take the scene between Mitchum and his wife. It’s one scene, barely lasts two minutes and we never see the wife again but it communicates so much about who Mitchum is and what’s at stake for him. There’s an effortless rapport between Mitchum and the actress, which actually make them seem married. Little throw away lines (“Work?” “Eddie it’s morning.”) tell us more about, and gets us more invested in, their relationship then we do for most movies devoted to the topic.
The film’s few action sequences, if that they can be called, are tense clipped affairs. As efficient and professional as the robbers who are their subject (and there’s one shot that actually had me laughing, as it proves that Affleck definitely screened this movie a couple of times before making The Town). But Coyle is like the best Boston Noir, not so much about the mechanics of crime as the people. Everyone schemes to save their own skins but at the end it doesn’t matter because the game is rigged.
The film doesn’t merely say that there is no honor among thieves. It says that there is no honor among people either.