The Story of Eddie Coyle is a rough edged movie with stern and serious characters that are either acting out of desperation or opportunism, all the while taking advantage of everyone that gets in their way. Everyone has an agenda, and much of the movie is them taking slight steps to manipulate the situation to reach that agenda.
If there’s any doubt about how rough the movie is, it is quashed early when Robert Mitchum’s Eddie Coyle tells a story about putting his hand in a drawer so that nuns would smash his fingers. He has lived a tough life and circumstances have turned against him to where he’s looking at facing time. Meanwhile his “friends” are either running guns for him or robbing banks.
One thing that jumped out at me is the correlations between the uses of space. There are a few tense action sequences, but the remainder of the movie basically consists of people talking to each other at different locations. A great deal of it takes place in the outdoors in the stark daylight, with contrasts with the darkness within each character.
The colors are often vivid pastels, which are used effectively as a way to color the cars for each character. Even on an indoor set like the bowling alley, the bright colors give some vibrancy to what would otherwise be a dark location. They use a variety of locations for these conversations, such as near a riverbank, at a park, in the parking lot of a grocery store or train station, and various other locations. For all the underhanded activity, the template is bright and might otherwise be seen as cheery, but the characterizations and acting keep the film gritty.
Again, using spaces, they differentiate between public and private space. They show Mitchum disheveled at his home. This is a rare glimpse of his private life, but other than him having his shirt un-tucked, it isn’t altogether different that the public spaces we see. It is still brightly lit and he barely cracks a smile, even to his wife who he ushers out while he makes important phone calls.
There are a lot of dialogue scenes with people talking in restaurants, often with Coyle and Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) talking about setting up deals. The diner scene above is a rarity in that it takes place at night, but it still has the same bright lighting, and even adds color with the bright yellow menu reflected on the mirror. It almost appears to be an artificial sun that is hovering above them.
The outdoor night scenes are barely lit, showing emptiness and desolation. There are often long shots with cars driving at night where the only light source is the headlights. This emptiness correlates to the character’s struggles. Many of them are left out to try and are truly alone. They have no real “friends,” especially not Eddie Coyle despite the title. The stark night scenes are not used often and only in important, key situations (like the screenshot above that I will not spoil).
What separates The Friends of Eddie Coyle from many “heist” (if you can call it that) films is the pacing of the “action.” The scenes play out naturally and slowly. This begins with the bank robbery, with many quick cuts to show reactions, slight movements, and the mechanics of the scene. As the pace continues, an unsettling uncertainty sinks in. The slightest movement could make the whole thing go awry, and the viewers are essentially preparing themselves for something to happen. The same sort of pacing is used for the gun exchanges. There’s more action in these scenes, so there is a lot more cutting back and forth, occasionally broken up by characters interacting, and then cutting again as people move into position. Sometimes something climatic happens, while other times nothing happens. It keeps the viewers on their toes. These scenes are wonderfully composed and edited.
Here is where I’ll dip into spoiler territory, so if you have not seen this, you might want to check out now.
The title is meant to be ironic. Eddie Coyle has no friends. Dillon is the guy who seems to be his closest friend and confidant during the movie turns out to have the same motivation as Coyle and double crosses him. Coyle double crosses his other friends, beginning with Jackie Brown, and then he offers up the bank robbers as well – anything that will get him out of hot water. The cops, like Dave Foley, sometimes seem to be looking out for their subject’s best interests, but they are merely playing them. Despite the sacrifice that Coyle makes, it isn’t enough to get him his relief. Dillon makes a greater sacrifice and appears to get his relief, but we will never really know.
Often I try to read deeper into films like this to see what they say about society. The core of The Friends of Eddie Coyle is distrust. Everybody is out for themselves and you cannot trust them, whether you’re in a diner or at a hockey game. Could this be a statement on the Vietnam war that was going on at the time? Could it be related to the Watergate scandal that had just occurred (although to be fair, I’m not sure if that was resolved during the movie)? In this instance, I think there are no deep messages about early 1970s society. It is merely a slick, well-done and somewhat unique crime film, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Film Rating: 7.5
Commentary: 2009, Director Peter Yates.
He considers it among his three favorite films that he directed along with The Dresser and Breaking Away.
Yates talks quite a lot about the actors, which is not uncommon with Director commentaries. One of my pet peeves is that they rarely say anything negative. It’s not that I want them to dish on their stars, but I think there could be more substance to a commentary than just gushing about actors. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear him talk about his cast, especially Mitchum.
Mitchum was the type of guy who didn’t like to discuss his performance in advance, but listens when shooting. He would then adapt accordingly. He wanted to conceive his own ideas first and go from there. Yates said that he was the consummate professional and very impressive. He worked on his Boston accent, and concentrated on holding himself steady to capture the downbeat aura of Coyle.
He said that Boston was very cooperative, letting them shoot in public places and shutting traffic down. Since there were so many public spots, this really made the film.
He considers the film to be the opposite of The Godfather. It was not glamorous or romantic, nor was it about mobsters. It was about morally bankrupt common criminals just scraping along.
This disc is particularly light on features for an upgrade. Other than the commentary, there are image stills. Those are nice, but not as substantial. I would have liked to have seen interviews or a visual essay. Still, because of the quality of the film and the transfer, it is a worthwhile addition.
Criterion Rating: 5.5