Saturday, October 3, 2009


Things aren't so good for Eddie Coyle right now. Old age is not the best place for a hood to find himself, and now that he's cresting 50, Eddie can't face the consequences of his life. A smuggling job gone wrong has a prison sentence hanging over his head, and if Eddie gets locked up, he knows that will be the end for him and his family. His kids barely know him as it is. Eddie knows the score in all things, and he fears that it will end up as a running tally of misfortune rather than a jackpot. Other crooks retire to Florida, he just wants his stake on the beach, not this spot in limbo. Eddie is working small-time jobs on the side, mainly procuring guns for bigger heists. His brain is sharp, but his body is limited. His pals have given him the cruel nickname of "Fingers." It's because one time Eddie screwed up and landed the wrong person in jail, and so the organization exacted their own punishment for the mistake: Eddie's hand was stuck in a drawer and it was slammed shut on him, making it so his digits will never be right again.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a 1973 crime movie directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, Breaking Away) from a screenplay by producer Paul Monash and based a novel by George V. Higgins. It stars Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle. If you need a guy whose been around the block a few times, you can't go wrong with latter-day Mitchum. Hell, he'd seen all four corners of many a block even in his early days. As one of the last great iconic screen actors of the studio system, Mitchum was the man's man and the rebel, playing a convincing bad guy but perhaps at his best when the conflicted hero. Some of his best roles touched on the Eddie Coyles of the world at different periods of their self-awareness. He is the man who has realized that he's made the wrong choice and now finds himself inextricably tangled up in it.

Eddie's friends are the usual collection of bad guys and black marketeers, and their classification as allies is questionable at best. Among them is Artie Van (Joe Santos) and Scalise (Alex Rocco), the go-between and the bank robber whom Eddie is buying guns for. Yates shows us several of Scalise's bank jobs, though largely keeping us in the dark as to his identity and the inner workings of his gang until midway in the picture when we finally see him and Eddie together. Just like everything else in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the robberies are filmed in a stark, meticulous manner, placing faith in the audience's ability to submerge themselves fully into this underworld and go along with a minimum of explanation. Scalise's crew begin each heist by going to the home of one of the bank executives, and they take the man's family hostage until the robbery is done. All of them wear identical masks so no single thief distinguishes himself. They are careful and exacting, no screw-ups. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.

Eddie trusts Scalise, and he wants to be in good with him because if he can keep out of jail, Scalise is likely where his big retirement score would come from. To get the pistols Scalise requires, Eddie deals with Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), an arms dealer who represents a totally different era than the one Eddie has come out of. Driving a lime green hot rod, wearing his hair long, getting excited over his illegal booty, Jackie comes off as someone who is just playing around. Eddie takes a kind of fatherly role with him, schooling him on the consequences of his actions. There are extended scenes of Mitchum explaining to this kid just what could happen to him if he wises up. It seems to work, as Jackie develops a healthy paranoia when working with the people who want to buy and sell the rifles.

Another of Eddie's friends is Dillon (Peter Boyle), the bar owner who hired Eddie for the job that got him busted. Eddie is a stand-up guy and isn't selling Dillon out, but a weary tension still exists between them. Eddie can say he will forgive and forget, but until his jacket is clear, not really. Dillon's bar is a bit of a criminal hub, and this makes Dillon a pretty important informant for the police. He has regular contact with Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), a cop who feeds him $20 bills in exchange for info. Their encounters are strange. They stroll the city engaging more in philosophical abstracts than they do with illegal specifics. If Eddie is in limbo, these guys own the keys to the kingdom. The way the one-eyed man is the king of the blind, these guys are the timekeepers in the waiting room of eternity. They are content to wait this out.

Paul Monash, a veteran of television and of other crime-oriented pictures, is himself content to leave out the unnecessary, and he revels in the jargon and the speech patterns of his bad guys (as well as a little Bostonian lilt thrown in, reflecting the city where the movie is set). Unlike a lot of modern writers, who are afraid that if they don't footnote every piece of slang the audience will get scared and leave, Monash has faith in the words to carry their own meaning. Context and performance can create the space for an unfamiliar turn of phrase to make sense. If the audience believes what they are watching, they aren't going to get hung up on the particulars. This trust goes both ways, too. For having faith in the viewer's intelligence, the viewer gives that faith back and trusts Yates and Monash when the filmmakers purposely leave things vague. How all the pieces are going to fit together is never readily apparent in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I suppose on paper this movie could be charted as a fairly standard outline, but if the filmmakers ever made one, it's like they removed every third item, creating blanks they would only fill in by suggestion later.

Eventually Eddie sees a way out. The cop Foley could vouch for him with the prosecutor if Eddie turns snitch. It's the one value left in Eddie's criminal code that he's hung on to. In fact, he's still not ready to give up the other guys in the smuggling operation, but maybe he'd sell out Jackie. The problem is, working with the police isn't that different than working with the crooks: once you're in, you're never getting out. They always want more.

I had heard a lot of praise for The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and I had been interested in seeing it ever since I read an essay about the flick in the back of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' comic book series Criminal. In all honesty, I was nonplussed when I watched it, but now the more I think about it (and write about it), the film is coming alive in my brain. I'm realizing how much more is going on in the inner workings of the plot and its characters. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is very much a 1970s movie--its drab colors and almost metallic coldness visually clue you in to its era almost immediately, whereas Dave Grusin's jazz funk score dates it horribly--but it's a 1970s movie that is gazing backwards with regret. This is neo-noir looking at the glamour of classic noir and finding it wanting. Eddie's motivation is not the promise of reward, but the escape from despair. He is old, broken, and empty. Youngsters like Jackie don't understand his sacrifice, whereas Eddie's contemporaries don't really honor it. He is a man left alone, who has followed his own rhythm and found that when the music ran out, he was dancing on his own.

This makes the brutally ironic ending all the more harrowing. I've written about that killer noir ending in many of my other reviews of crime movies, the sort of final moment where the plan falls apart, it's all for naught, crime doesn't pay. Usually, that means losing the money, walking away empty handed. For Eddie Coyle, it's the whole shebang. Stitched up and framed, stuck on the wrong end of poetic justice, he pays the big price. It's an existential conundrum, the consequences we can't outrun, the very fate we tried to steer away looping around to bite us on the ass. And yet, the game is still being played. Those kings of limbo? The cop and the informant? They are nothing less than God and the devil, playing at both sides and meeting in the middle, bemused by the cruelty of human life.

Included with the Criterion DVD of The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a reprint of a 1973 Rolling Stone article writer Grover Lewis put together after a visit to the movie's set. It's fascinating how Robert Mitchum talks to Lewis. He pontificates on a variety of subjects, largely unprompted, and he sounds a lot like Eddie schooling Jackie. He is full of old wisdom and he can't understand how said wisdom is not more common. Is his performance in Eddie Coyle an actor so dominating a role that it becomes him, or did Mitchum choose to be in the film because it matched who he was? It's impossible to say, but reading how he knew Eugene O'Neill and Dylan Thomas, or about his visit to Vietnam, or why he acts simply because he doesn't want to do harder work, it really seems like we're getting to know an actor who we think would otherwise be closed off and protective of his true identity. I expected someone more like Cary Grant, who was careful of his brand and left himself back at home. Not so with Robert Mitchum, he is what he is, and what he is ended up on the screen.

No comments: