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What's striking about watching (even on a cruddy bootleg disc) Peter Yates' 1973 flick The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the silence. And the silence is an absolute paradox. Eddie Coyle is a grubby, grim crime drama set in (a completely vanished) Boston and based on the debut novel of the same name, written by George V. Higgins, a lawyer and journalist-turned-writer (a big influence on Elmore Leonard). Higgins' novel is a unique beast, as it's made up of nearly all dialogue. Eddie Coyle the film operates in the same way—it's a series of conversations between various criminals (gun runners, utility men, bank robbers) who are all sniffing out agendas and figuring out various operations (how to get guns, how to rob a bank, how to avoid prison). Despite the occasional intrusiveness of Dave Grusin's jazz score (the worst aspect of the movie), Yates keeps things simple and solid as his camera follows these workaday criminals.
Eddie Coyle (played by a wonderfully hangdog Robert Mitchum) is a low level utility crime-guy in Boston's seedy (and oh, how authentically seedy! Unlike the current biotech, cupcakery on every block, sports teams that, ugh, occasionally win*, Boston!) criminal underworld. Need guns? Need someone to drive your car? Eddie's your guy. But in these gray, chilly days, Eddie's luck has seemingly run out; he's due to go to prison, leaving his wife and kid to a life of welfare.
Yates patiently follows Eddie during this desperate time and the bank robbers, gun runners, and cops whose livelihood depends on the small time hood. The film works as an ensemble, while Mitchum is the charismatic, soul-spent center of the picture, a variety of familiar mugs (Peter Boyle, The Godfather's Alex Rocco, and Richard Jordan), filter in and out of his life. The dialogue is lean, sharp, and rich: every scene sets the stakes a little bit higher, sweeping the plot forward. The film was certainly part of the wave of great 1970s crime films—The French Connection, Mean Streets, and more—and deserves to be held up in that pantheon.
(Fun fact: if you look at the film in the right way, it serves as a story that could be based on the life of Boston's most notorious mobster, James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger, Jr. This fact, of course, places The Departed—with Jack Nicholson essentially playing Whitey, but, ah, without any attempt at an accent—in the same lineage, of course. Additionally, director Jim Sheridan is currently working on an adaptation of the book Black Mass, also about, you guessed it, Whitey Bulger.)
As a film about Boston, the grubby streets and stultifying provincialism, Eddie Coyle gets the greater Boston area absolutely right (and credit should also go to Brockton-born Higgins' source novel): the comments about getting down to sunny Florida, the scenes that shoot down to the leafy suburbs of Weymouth, Sharon, Dedham, and Quincy. You can feel how cold it is, how gray it is, how there can be a little beauty coming out of all that muck. The shot of a car at Dorchester's Boston Bowl (open 24 hours) is particularly gorgeous. Watching the film, there's no question that it could be set anyplace other than Boston. Even the accents are completely solid in this film, not one actor lapsing into clownishness. Mitchum, in particular, rules.
There have been a bevy of Irish Catholic Boston-based mob films released in the past ten years (or barely released in the case of What Doesn't Kill You, with Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke: enjoy those accents!), but frankly, they're not steeped in the location and the nuances of the city. You could transfer them to Tucson, Arizona, and they'd have the same flavor. The Departed, in particular, is a strong example of this tendency to add the city of Boston as a garnish on top of a movie. It could've been moved to New York quite easily, the Harvard sweatshirts replaced with Columbia sweatpants. Eddie Coyle, on the other hand, has the nuance and, for lack of a better word, the dig-your-heels-in authenticity of a troubled city breathing a wheezy sigh. Perhaps that's due to the fact that you believe these characters are poor and desperate and Yates is willing to let their status color the frame—the stillness of Eddie Coyle lingers long after the final shot.
* There is probably an argument to be made that once the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, the city's character changed. This is probably true.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle screens at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, May 26 at 6:30 pm. The special screening is billed as "A Conversation with Peter Yates," and the venerable director will be there to discuss Eddie Coyle and other highlights from his career, including Bullitt and Breaking Away. Want to be in the audience? Click here to enter our contest.
Eddie Coyle is now available on DVD through Criterion.
If you trusted the movies, you'd think Boston was crawling with small time Irish hoods. Not true! Other flicks that do a good job of letting Boston play itself: The Verdict (Paul Newman!), Good Will Hunting (for the wordless Dunkin' Donuts in the morning scenes and actually addressing the class issues between townies and Haaaaavahd kids), Celtic Pride (JUST KIDDING, good job writing that, Apatow!), and Next Stop Wonderland.