In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Eddie Coyle sure could use a friend. Surrounded by many, known by even more, with a family and with former and current partners in crime, Eddie is nevertheless alone. He is a tragically solitary figure whose perhaps naive earnestness leaves him easily taken advantage of and susceptible to manipulation. He is world-weary, physically broken down on the inside (his haggard, hangdog expression betraying his internal fatigue), and literally wrecked on the outside (his battered knuckles evidence of a mob scolding from years past). In a terrific mid-career performance, Robert Mitchum plays Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle as the personification of down-on-his-luck.
In America, the 1930s had its string of groundbreaking, socially conscious depression-era gangsters, and the 1940s were marked by atmospheric noir and the angst of a country in post-war transition. But the 1970s revealed a highpoint in gritty crime films with a palpable urban texture and authentically flawed, realistic-looking characters on both sides of the law. From down and dirty detectives who operate by their own sense of justice to African-American crusaders too cool for any decade prior or since, the cops and criminals of 1970s American cinema were of a vividly distinct era. In this cycle were also low-key crime dramas, films about characters on the margins of the law to start, increasingly, and blatantly, crossing over to the other side. Then there were the crime films about figures, who though obviously criminal, nevertheless elicit our sympathies. This is where Eddie Coyle comes in.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle begins with the smooth, controlled casing of a bank and its staff. A group of men are noting timelines and surveying the facility’s layout: its exterior, the security cameras, the safe, the tellers, desks, booths, etc. Here and elsewhere, we see the heist men are composed and calm. They plan, they research, they execute. They are professional through and through—they are in it to win it. When we then first see the disheveled Eddie, on the other hand, he already appears beaten. Hair and clothes a mess, he looks longingly into a cafeteria window like a penniless beggar. He enters, picks up some food, and sits with Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), a wise and wise-ass gunrunner. As they quickly get down to business, we find that Eddie is a criminal as well, and he’s a criminal who knows his business. He’s there to buy guns from this young man—he needs 30 of them—but he’s concerned about the reliability of this apparently green kid.
As Kent Jones writes in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle: They Were Expendable,” an essay that accompanies the Criterion Collection disc of the film, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle is, in many ways, an inside job. Meaning that there’s not a minute spent orienting the viewer.” “The tale,” he notes, is “imparted to us a little bit at a time, through a series of seemingly affable but quietly desperate sit-downs between criminals and cops, or other criminals….” So we know Eddie is a criminal, but is he mafia, is he a lower rung con, operating autonomously or in cahoots with some larger organization? Who knows? Maybe he’s both, or perhaps he was once one or the other and is now something completely different. Part of what defines Eddie’s character is this sense of what once was or what could have been. He lives in a world where everyone is getting by—getting by by whatever means necessary. But he seems to be the only one who is just barely getting by. Others are progressing steadily, however slowly. Where did he go wrong? Why is his life one marred by regret and disappointment?
For one thing, we gather that this is not a recent scenario for Eddie. The lines on his face trace a pattern of short ends and mistakes. His has been a life-long struggle. Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), the detective Eddie starts working with/for, can’t quite get a handle on this criminal still in the life but desperate to get out. Amused and baffled by Eddie’s role and rank within whichever lawless organization he now calls home, Foley tells a colleague that Eddie is a “stray dog.” And he certainly looks it.
Despite his perceived outsider status (perceived as such by Foley as well as the audience), Eddie undeniably has a proven track record and an admirable reputation. Though it doesn’t show on the surface, nor does it show in his economic or professional status, he must have been doing something right. Case in point: he is respected by fellow criminals for his refusal to rat on Dillon (Peter Boyle), a felon friend for whom Eddie was driving a hijacked truck when he was arrested. It’s because of this bust that Eddie, now facing a prison sentence, is willing to divulge some information to Foley in return for a good word and leniency. It’s not that Eddie wants to betray any of his underworld colleagues, it’s just that he is worried about the prospect of his family resorting to welfare. What Eddie is now doing—what we sense he has always been doing—is for the benefit of his family. Yes, the young Eddie may have been just a reckless hood, but with a wife and three kids, and judging by his now anxious behavior and his dogged determination, he has his priorities in order.
With this in mind, the first time we see the inside of the Coyle house (a vital scene given Eddie’s familial motivations and the fact that this is the lone glimpse of any sort of “normal” domesticity for any of the main characters), the home is cramped, disorderly, and cluttered. Eddie, despite apparent years of criminal activity, has not seen the profits of his endeavors; crime, for Eddie, has not paid. The clever and generally effective kidnapping/bank robbery scheme that acts as the crux of the film’s larger narrative is efficiently executed the first time out. Yet again though, just as in the preparatory opening of the film, after this display of criminal cunning, director Peter Yates cuts back to Eddie … as he’s taking out the garbage and seeing his kids off to school. It’s a further contrast between Eddie’s stolid life of an everyman and of those more actively engaged in a profitable, thrilling criminal existence. In any case, though, it’s a life Eddie couldn’t now have even if he wanted to.
At a crucial crossroads, and tempted by the prospect of Foley’s arrangement, Eddie is doing his best to assist the law—helping his uncle, he says, helping his uncle “like a bastard”—but it’s to no avail. Eddie is happy to comply, but fed like an addict by Foley, who needs continually more information, Eddie is pushed to the limit of what he can get away with. He decries the idea of turning “permanent fink,” but when he realizes his dire straits, he’s willing to do what he has to do. His deal with Foley seems promising, and he’s putting his life on the line for the potential reprieve, but nothing goes as he hopes, and the agreement appears less and less advantageous. And when he’s ready to tip off the big score, he’s too slow with the decision. The cops didn’t need him after all. “You’re too late Eddie,” says Foley. “It all happened without you.” Too little, too late. The story of Eddie Coyle.
Eddie may be the primary focus of the film, but as its title implies, those around him are crucial to the story—his and the film’s. Subsequently, screenwriter and producer Paul Monash (adapting George V. Higgins’ novel) and director Yates give due attention to those acting independently of Eddie, yet profoundly affecting his own goals, whether he knows it or not. Jordan, Keats, Boyle, and Alex Rocco all turn in stellar supporting performances, but are only able to do so thanks to their individual roles of substance.
Strangely, despite the successes of others, everyone else also seems to be striving for the end of the line: one last score, one more tip-off to stay legit, a final deal to get in the good graces of a judge. Even for those who seem to be doing better than Eddie, this is no overly glamorous, lavish life of crime. It’s a life of trailers as safe houses and bowling alley rendezvous. Between Foley with his own job to do, Eddie and his issues, the self-preservation of Dillon, now a deceitful barkeep and fellow informer, and the inherent stresses of Jimmy Scalise (Rocco), the head of the back robbery crew that is pressing their luck once too often, there emerges pressure on all sides. And somehow, all sides emerge sympathetic (to a certain extent), due largely, if nothing else, to this sense of communal burden.
It comes down to personal accountability. Eddie, overcome with a feeling of responsibility toward his family, acts as an informant out of necessity. Yet Dillon has his own desperate situation and his own worries about self-preservation. At the end of the day, everyone, to cite Jean Renoir, has their reasons. But everyone also has their excuses; everyone is looking for a way out, a basis to be the exception, and they’re self-sufficient enough to do whatever it takes to stay alive and out of jail. “Politeness and bonhomie are strictly provisional,” writes Jones, “and everybody knows it, which is what gives this film its terrible sadness. In the miserable economy of power in Boston’s rumpled gray underworld, Eddie and his ‘friends’ are all expendable, and the ones left standing play every side against the middle….” It’s little wonder so much screen time is spent conveying the cautious nature of the characters. There are inconspicuous meetings, careful exchanges, meticulous inventory inspections, stealthy stakeouts, and a general suspicion toward all strangers. And all this for good reason. This is an unforgiving world, mirrored by the cold, nondescript, austere Boston location, and it doesn’t take much for the tide to turn on anyone for any reason. At the same time, no one wants to own up to the fact that they have put themselves in their current situation; it’s nobody else’s fault but their own. Their career choices have left them where they are. It’s finally Foley who calls at least Eddie out for this self-deception. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle,” he says, “is Eddie Coyle.”
From the opening cafeteria scene onward, a rhythmic verbal motif is established, continuing throughout The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Jackie: “I can get you probably six pieces. I got more now, but I promised some of this lot.”
Eddie: “I don’t know as I like that—buying from the same lot as somebody else. Makes me nervous.”
Jackie: “Yeah, well, I understand.”
Eddie: “You don’t understand like I understand. I got certain responsibilities.”
Jackie: “Look. I told you I understand. Did you get my name or didn’t you?”
Eddie: “I got your name.”
Jackie: “Well, all right.”
Eddie: “All right nothin’. I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right.”
In his exceptionally faithful adaptation of Higgins’ text, Monash writes dialogue with a repetition of words and phrases, giving the banter a touch of the poetic. Eddie and the others talk tough—talk almost too tough, as if they’re quoting movies they’ve seen or intentionally playing a stylized part—but such a unique vocal pattern is nevertheless fascinatingly peculiar. It has a way of connecting the characters. That they all speak like this to varying degrees bonds them as being of a similar ilk, yet it also detaches them from those around them; one can’t imagine the bank tellers talking like this, for instance. It’s an unspoken and understood acknowledgement of occupation and a colloquial indication of a similar society.
In the end—and what follows is a major spoiler—Eddie’s death is the most poignant moment of the movie, at once illustrating the film’s key theme of Eddie as an antiquated outsider and further representing the sort of callous dispensability that Jones notes. Set up by Dillon and the bosses in charge, Eddie’s execution is deemed a necessity, lest he give up someone else in his by now acknowledged quest to avoid sentencing. Despite the detailed and relatively lengthy build up, Eddie is unceremoniously murdered without any stylistic dramatics by Yates and without any major distress from Dillon and the young hood he brought in for the job (presumably not really his wife’s nephew, as he introduces the kid). Thoroughly inebriated and barely conscious, Eddie doesn’t put up a fight. He literally doesn’t even see it coming. And once the deed is done, his body is left in a car as Dillon and the young man drive away in another vehicle. There is no sensitive close-up of the tragically deceased Eddie. The overhead camera stays back at a distance; we never see his body in these final moments and Mitchum never gets a star send-off. Eddie is merely disposed of as others move on, just as everyone in the film could easily be. He is simply left alone in a car, which is itself isolated in a darkened, vacant parking lot. This is how it ends for Eddie Coyle.
Will Eddie be missed? Probably, by his family at least. But to everyone else, Eddie just served a function. He was a cog in the criminal wheel that will remain ever-turning, dispensing cops and criminals alike in a perpetual circle of violence. Perhaps what finally did Eddie in was the mistake of putting his faith in others. He wanted to believe that there was still loyalty among thieves, that he was still an integral figure in a grand criminal enterprise, that he, like everyone, had some worth. But he and seemingly he alone didn’t see the unscrupulous impermanence of those around him.
So yes, Eddie may have had his associates, but was there anyone he could really rely on? Was anyone really a friend of Eddie Coyle?
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinmea, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.