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June 24, 2008 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | June 24, 2008 |

I have a terrible memory. Absolute shit. So it’s very rare that I remember things like where or when I first saw a movie — hell, after a couple years, I often don’t remember how a movie even ends. And yet, I remember exactly where and when I first stumbled upon The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which is even more shocking considering I was drunk. It was during my third year of law school in the fall of 2000 when, on any given night, the odds were distinctly in favor of me being drunk. But this was a rare night, however, as I didn’t immediately pass out when I got home. Instead, I found myself laying on my bed in a mildly drunken stupor, flipping through the channels in an attempt to find adequate background noise to the impending pass-out. And that’s when I came upon a scene with these two dudes talking in a diner. From the tone and color of the film, it was obviously a 70’s flick. And having no idea who Robert Mitchum was, it wasn’t until later that I realized he was the one giving this absolutely engrossing monologue about why he’s so careful when buying illegal guns. And as drunk as I was, I was so roped in by this simple monologue that I willed myself to a semblance of sobriety so I could stay awake for the next 80-odd minutes watching what is one of the best low-down gangster flicks out there.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a pretty simple movie, plot-wise. It’s about Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (Robert Mitchum), a longtime low-level hood for the Boston mob who caters in stealing and gun running. As we join Coyle, he’s just learned that his appeals from a hijacking conviction have reached the end of the line, and he’s facing two years in the clink up in New Hampshire. Feeling tired and trapped, Coyle turns to a U.S. Treasury Agent, hoping there might be some sort of deal he can cut with the Feds (or “Uncle,” as the capital-G government is referred to here). A deal which may or may not involve Eddie’s “friends,” three gangsters who specialize in old-school bank stick-up jobs. And while there are some other plot threads, that’s really about it. And it’s enough, because this noir film is much more about the characters and the dialogue and the feel of it all than the story at hand.

Which makes sense given the fact that the film is based on the book of the same name, written by George V. Higgins. Himself a Boston native, Higgins’ writing was known for being thinner on narrative and heavier on tough-guy dialogue. In fact, he’s been cited as an influence to other dialogue-strong writers like Elmore Leonard and David Mamet. So of course the film’s script is one of its best elements. But that dialogue only works because the actors capably pull it off. Everyone is solid and feels authentic, and Richard Jordan (as Treasury agent Dave Foley) and Peter Boyle (as fellow low-level hood and bar owner Dillon) are particularly good.

But this movie is, through and through, all about Robert Mitchum. Equal parts tough and weary, Mitchum wears Eddie Coyle like a fucking glove. Aside from a few bit roles, this is really the only movie I’ve seen Mitchum in and, frankly, I don’t want to see another one — he so owns Coyle that I suspect anything else I see him do will be a let down. Sure, as I’ve said, Mitchum had good dialogue to work with. But it’s the way he delivers those lines and the choices that he makes that allow us to see Coyle’s dichotomy. After all, Eddie Coyle is not a particularly good man — he’s a thug, a petty criminal and (maybe) a rat. Yet Mitchum is able to turn Eddie Coyle inside out in such a way that you almost feel bad for the guy when you see how scared and tired and beaten down he truly is. One minute, a menacing bully, the next, an almost simpering man just trying to find a way back home. It’s a fascinating performance (the kind that can keep a drunk college kid awake at 2:30 in the morning, even).

But to be fair, there’s actually one other true star of the film, one that almost outshines Mitchum. Boston itself. Granted, I don’t know from Boston in the 70’s — by the time I was living there, it was 25 years after this movie and a vastly different place. Despite that, I know that this version of Boston is 70’s Boston. Which isn’t to say the movie gives us a nostalgic view of the city — rather, because it’s of that time (it came out in 1973), what we are given is a cold and real view, from the nonchalant racism to the Whitey Bulger-like criminality. But it’s unquestionably what Boston was like three decades ago, before it was a tech and financial center trying to climb out from underneath New York’s shadow, before it was a traffic-snarled mess, before it was a place where the Patriots mattered more than the Bruins. And actually, coming from a similarly imperfect, fractured and blue collar city, maybe I do find the whole thing a little nostalgic. But that’s neither here nor there because, the point is, the film manages to capture a specific moment in time. That feeling of the everyday underbelly of a big city in the middle of dirty time for our country, when we were transitioning from the free-love 60’s to the yuppified 80’s, and where regular Joes were just going about their regular business, even if that regular business happened to be crime.

But whatever with the waxing poetic. Sometimes it’s just easier to explain the essence of something by showing, rather than telling. So check out this three minute clip from early in the movie, where Eddie explains the origin of his “Fingers” nickname. It just so happens that this is the very scene I stumbled upon lo’ that drunken night, and it exemplifies almost everything that works about The Friends of Eddie Coyle, from the film’s slow style to its crisp dialogue to Mitchum’s fantastic performance. And if you’re not hooked after watching this scene, well, I just don’t know what kind of person you are and, frankly, there are no other words I can write to persuade you otherwise.

The only bad thing about this movie is that, inexplicably, it has yet to show up on DVD. It frequently sits high on those “best things not on DVD” lists and yet nobody has ever offered a proper explanation for its absence. Luckily, however, it can be rented/purchased from iTunes and Amazon’s whatever-their-digital-download-service-is, so if you’re curious, you can still seek it out. And you won’t be disappointed because, while you may have dug the shit out of Marty’s Oscar-winner (as I did), what-the-fuck-ever with The Departed. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real Boston gangster movie.

Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. He wishes he was even kidding about his memory. Fucking embarrasing how for shit it is.

The Only One Fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle / Seth Freilich

Film | June 24, 2008 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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