Throughout Peter Yates’ masterful The Friends of Eddie Coyle, crooks, thieves and the occasional police officer use terms of complacent endearment — friend, nice guy, good man — but the words never seem to carry any meaning. All of them tend to agree that Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), a career criminal at 51, is a nice guy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to put him in the dirt if it makes their lives easier. Coyle can’t really blame them for it; he knows the way of the world.
As its title points out, Friends has a very marginal interest in Eddie himself. In his first scene, Coyle goes about telling a gun dealer (Steven Keats) about how some associates of other associates slammed his fingers after a deal went sour. A low-level hood since God-knows-when, Eddie speaks about the situation congenially before telling the dealer that he needs 30 guns. Coyle has been supplying guns to a pack of bank robbers, the head of which is played by Alex Rocco. The money he’s making is to support his wife and kids before he reports for a two-year stint in a New Hampshire prison; he doesn’t feel his family should be scraping by on welfare.
Better than perhaps any movie in memory, Yates’ film depicts crime in Boston as day labor rather than some shadowy practice of seduction. Eddie has the demeanor of a plumber or a truck driver, a blue-collar man who drinks domestic and can live on a slice of pie and coffee if need be. The fact that Coyle is so effective has much to do with the fact that he is played by Mr. Mitchum. Though not as transfixing as his monstrous preacher in Night of the Hunter, Coyle easily allows for one of Mitchum’s best performances, a grounded, unsentimental study of a man as used-up and disposable as an empty can of Schlitz.
Like Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, Eddie Coyle cemented Mitchum as a hawk amongst pigeons while completely stripping him of the brazen masculinity that had made him popular. When Eddie becomes a stoolie for a suave-yet-slimy detective (the great Richard Jordan), it’s all sorrowful slow-burn rather than teary catharsis. Yates and Mitchum impress the mundane nature of Coyle’s criminal life and, in turn, connect with the cold disregard for life that these men have accepted. Watching Eddie’s bartender friend (Peter Boyle, precise and natural) make Eddie’s final arrangements brings out feelings of procedure more than mourning.
A great, unheralded craftsman, Yates was eclipsed by his star (Steve McQueen) when he directed Bullitt, only to be nominated by the Academy for his sappiest work (Breaking Away). A pre-cursor to the brooding menace of Michael Mann’s Heat, Friends supplies an example of director and lead in perfect pitch, neither artist attempting to outshine the other. Mitchum died in 1997 and it’s hard not to think of his bellowing steel baron in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as his final bow. Yet, watching him take in a Bruins game, drinking a few cold ones and chanting “Number Four! Bobby Orr!” before his bartender friend takes him home for the night, it’s even harder to consider The Friend of Eddie Coyle as anything less than Mitchum’s true swan song.