Low-level mobster Eddie Coyle is a stand-up guy in a world where he thinks that matters.
That’s the message in director Peter Yates’ fascinating and often overlooked gangland morality tale, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Based on a novel by former organized crime prosecutor George V. Higgins, the movie offers a realistic account of the treachery, betrayal and mistrust that are part of everyday life in the underworld. Higgins knows the story. He also knows Boston, where the movie is set. His dialogue—captured in the screenplay written by Paul Monash—is right from the streets.
Robert Mitchum gives one of the best performances of his stellar career as the title character—an aging gangster who is frustrated, angry, weary and awaiting sentencing for a hijacking conviction that could send him back to jail for five years.
“Look, I’m gettin’ old, ya’ hear?” he says to Jack Brown (Steven Keats), a young, cocky gunrunner with whom he is doing business. “I spent most of my life hangin’ around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinkin’ the beer, eatin’ the hash and the hot dogs and watchin’ the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood up, but I can’t take no more chances. Next time, it’s gonna be me goin’ to Florida.”
Even as Coyle says it, you know there’s a part of him that doesn’t believe it. There is not going to be a happy ending in Florida. Not with “the friends” he has around him.
Those friends include Dillon (Peter Boyle), the local bar owner who set up the hijacking of a liquor truck in New Hampshire that led to Coyle’s arrest and conviction. Coyle hasn’t given up Dillon and remains a close friend, even as he tries to squirm out from under the sentence that hangs over his head.
And there’s Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), the ATF agent who is willing to go to bat for Coyle with the prosecutor up in New Hampshire prior to sentencing if Coyle can help him make a few cases in Boston—if, the agent says in the vernacular of the streets, Coyle can give something “to uncle.”
Finally, there’s Jimmy Scalise (Alex Rocco), a local wiseguy and the leader of a small group of bank robbers who have been staging a series of heists in broad daylight with guns Coyle has supplied by way of the gunrunner Brown.
The interconnections mimic those in real life. There is a fine line between the underworld and the law enforcement agents who troll it trying to make cases. Information, connections, gossip and innuendo are what it is all about. And The Friends of Eddie Coyle captures that perfectly.
Coyle is being a stand-up guy for Dillon, but Dillon is a $20-a-week snitch (this is 1973 don’t forget) for Foley. At the same time—and unbeknownst to Foley—the bar owner also works as a hit man for the mob. Boyle plays the character with just the right combination of arrogance and sincerity. For him, it’s all business.
“No money, no hit,” he tells a mobster who wants to contract out an assignment without paying in advance.
“And no credit cards whatsoever,” he adds.
Coyle, with a wife and three school-age kids depending on him, can’t go back to jail. So he decides to work for Foley. But he can’t quite deliver enough. He gives up Brown when he’s about to sell some machine guns to a pair of hippie radicals driving around in a dilapidated van. But Foley says he needs more than that before he’ll put in a word for Coyle with the authorities in New Hampshire.
“I shoulda known better than to trust a cop,” Coyle says in frustration. “My own goddamn mother coulda told me that.”
“Everybody ought to listen to his mother,” Foley replies.
Coyle finally decides to give up Scalise for the bank robberies. But when he meets with Foley, he learns that Scalise and his associates have already been arrested.
Dillon, we know, has given them up. But the word on the street is that Coyle has ratted them out in order to get out from under the hijacking case.
As a result, the mob decides Coyle has to be killed. The contact goes to Dillon.
With friends like these. . . .
HIT: There is no glamour in the underworld of Eddie Coyle, nor is there any attempt by the director to pretend that there is. This is a gritty, realistic look at “the life.” And while those who love the movie compare it favorably to The Departed, this film’s hard-luck lead protagonist and his inevitable fate are more reminiscent of Al Pacino’s role in Donnie Brasco. But either comparison is high praise.
MISS: While most of the storyline stays true to the petty saga of crime and punishment that is the world of low-level wiseguys, the gun dealing doesn’t make sense. Scalise and his associates want new guns for each bank heist. But a gun gets fired in only one heist. A gun used in a crime—especially a murder—is always discarded. No one wants to be caught holding a gun “with a body on it.” But if the guns aren’t fired, there is no reason to replace them. So why does Scalise keep buying more guns from Coyle?
GOOF: In the scene at the Boston Garden during a hockey game, Coyle gets up to buy beer wearing a sports jacket over a sweater and shirt. When he returns with the beer, he is in the sweater and shirt, and the jacket is hanging over the rail in front of his seat.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mitchum has perhaps never been better. . . . Give him a character and the room to develop it and what he does is wonderful. Eddie Coyle is made for him: a weary, middle-aged man, but tough and proud; a man who has been hurt too often in life not to respect pain; a man who will take chances to protect his own territory.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: George V. Higgins, author of the novel on which the movie is based, had a multifaceted career. He was a prosecutor who worked organized crime cases. He was a journalist who, at different times, wrote for the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald American and the Wall Street Journal. As a defense attorney later in his life, his clients included left-wing radical Eldridge Cleaver and right-wing zealot G. Gordon Liddy. He also was a professor at Boston College (his alma mater) and Boston University.
REALITY CHECK: Some media types speculated that Peter Boyle’s Dillon was fashioned after notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. They also pointed out that Eddie Coyle’s situation was not unlike that of Boston bank robber and Bulger associate William “Billy” O’Brien, who was murdered while awaiting trial amidst underworld gossip and speculative news reports that he might have been cooperating with authorities.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: This is a movie worth revisiting from time to time, if only to see Mitchum at the top of his game.
BEST LINE: Gunrunner Jack Brown succinctly explains the facts of life to an associate as he bobs and weaves around Boston making deals with bad guys and staying one step ahead of the authorities: “This life’s hard, man. But it’s harder if you’re stupid.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Low-key and limited. Lots of guns, but not much shooting.
BODY COUNT: Two.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”