The Friends of Eddie Coyle, long out of circulation and now being universally lauded on the occasion of its release on a gorgeous Criterion Collection DVD, was shot in Boston in autumn, right around the time of Richard Nixon’s reelection. It is a gray, grim, cold-snapped movie, all bare branches and shoulders hunched against the world. As in a number of other great movies of the era — especially the similarly cold-weather, blue-collar, stagflated Slap Shot — the world seems bled of possibility.
The film, a roundelay of bottom-rung Boston hoods and feds, is adapted from the unadorned, fatalistic novel by trial lawyer turned novelist George V. Higgins — as Geoffrey O’Brien observed in a recent Film Comment piece, the elliptically plotted book and movie is mostly a series of conversations, “an aesthetic of the wiretap.” The movie retains that minimalism — aside from “two crisply executed bank heists and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside,” there’s not much action, notes Kent Jones in his fine essay accompanying the DVD. Only Dave Grusin‘s sadly inevitable jazz-funk score makes any kind of grab towards stylishness; Peter Yates’ direction and Paul Monash’s faith adaptation never attempt to raise the octave.
So what’s the there here?
Well, as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, the small-timer trying to avoid jail time in Vermont — while buying guns from a jittery dealer for a series of home invasions/bank robberies carried out by some associates, and considering feeding info to a smooth-talking FBI op — there’s Robert Mitchum, a legendary studio-system baddass, turning his outsized lazy cynicism into a sort of slow-motion, inward-directed bitterness. It’s an extraordinary — but deeply scaled — performance; aside from one perfectly efficient dressing-down, his attitude registers as a barely surly surrender.
What else is there? Well, this is going to sound crazy, but there’s the location scouting. The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes place in neon-signed bars, formica-topped lunchrooms, yellow-wallpapered kitchens, fake wood-panelled trailers, deserted parking lots and highway rest stops. Completely average, dated places: single-story faux-colonial banks like islands in a sea of asphalt; the exposed cement and icy air of the old Boston Garden.
It takes enormous courage to shoot a movie — especially a theoretically marketable genre movie — in such nondescript places. Shouldn’t the audience get a steady slideshow of postcard locations and flashy exteriors? This seems to be the dominant theory at the moment. But — and perhaps this is only true if your very first memories and earliest photographs, like mine, are glimpses of New England in the late 80s and early 90s — there’s an enormous romanticism in these tacky, unmemorable locations. The interior design locates the movie in a very specific time and place. A place now, inevitably, lost — and that resigned wave to forgettable places and people is what The Friends of Eddie Coyle is all about.