Despite having been in movies since the heyday of the studio era, Robert Mitchum delivered several of his most interesting performances in the ’70s, probably because his don’t-give-a-damn acting style meshed comfortably with the naturalistic filmmaking methods that were in vogue at the time. One of the best examples of this synthesis between the right actor and the right moment is The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a soft-spoken crime picture about a sad-sack Boston hoodlum faced with the awful choice of going to prison for an interminable sentence or snitching on his lowlife friends.
Utilizing the actor’s hangdog face and world-weary carriage to great effect, director Peter Yates employs Mitchum as the visual foundation for a rich portrait of going-nowhere criminality. Character actors Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, and Alex Rocco surround Mitchum with vivid performances laced with ambition, avarice, paranoia, and sociopathic violence; Boyle is particularly good as an operator working several self-serving angles at once. So even though the storyline meanders through beats that are familiar to fans of the crime genre, deeply textured acting gives the piece dimension and humanity.
In one of the best scenes, Mitchum meets with a cocky gun dealer (Keats) in a coffee shop to discuss an illicit arms deal. Bruised by a lifetime of bad experiences, Mitchum brandishes his deformed mitt and explains that making a deal with the wrong guy in the past led to getting his hand broken, thus explaining his reluctance to accept Keats’ overconfidence at face value. Yates shoots the scene simply, with long lenses angled over the actors’ shoulders, creating a level of docudrama realism that’s emulated throughout the picture. As a testament to Yates’ focus on meticulous dramaturgy, the film’s quiet conversation scenes often have as much punch as its highly charged bank-robbery sequences. The action stuff works just fine, however, like the bits in which hoodlums use their favorite trick—holding a bank manager’s family hostage so he doesn’t get heroic ideas during a robbery.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a subtle power that isn’t immediately evident on first viewing, since the plot isn’t clever and the payoff is more logically inevitable than inexorably tragic, but it’s hard to think of another crime film from the same period with as much artfully rendered nuance.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle: GROOVY