Actor Robert Mitchum’s bedraggled visage in The Friends of Eddie Coyle bears testament to the crippling exhaustion of nearly two decades slugging it out to remain relevant after his early run of alternately lusty and haunted film noirs cast him as the de facto face of wounded mid-century existence. Back in the day, his slightly slurred baritone was the perfect mouthpiece for the archest of masculine men revealing the hesitancies and anxieties behind their robustly manly confrontations. But by 1973, Mitchum was no longer a white-hot emblem of a vision of American questioning itself. Decades of both personal and national tension remade him as the hoarse, dog-tired poster child for an America that was now not only struggling but seemingly disqualified, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes full advantage of every crack adorning his face. With an uneasy humor and paranoid visual style, director Peter Yates’ film is a return, and an extension, of that very spirit of wounded noir cinema. Not only a work of darting eyes more than the classical steely glares that punctured many classical film noirs, it is also a return to the forefront for Mitchum that paradoxically revitalizes his screen life by casting him in a faded, fatalistic gloom that drives him right back into the grave. Eddie Coyle’s skeletal framework, with an emphasis on absence rather than presence, suggests a world of unassimilable people splayed across a suffocatingly finite space, lost in a dulled, silenced universe.
Although most renowned for his knuckle-dusting work behind the camera of the ice-cold Steve McQueen vehicle, Bullitt, director Peter Yates’ work helming The Friends of Eddie Coyle also intimates the many decades that passed in the mere five years between the two films. While Bullitt evokes a crazed attempt to steer an out-of-control energy into a sensible, legible package of sterling thrills, The Friends of Eddie Coyle has already tipped over and accepted the final moments of life drowning before its eyes. If Bullitt was a vicious stick-up, Eddie Coyle – all silent chill, harried Boston milieu, and too-long-for-comfort takes – is an abusive mugging when you already have nothing less to lose. Just compare Frank Keller’s dynamo editing for the famed car chase in Bullitt, all bristling traction and lucid, perpetual motion, to Patricia Jaffe’s spaced-out, too-distressed-to-move cutting here. The former is a decade rushing off-kilter to furious completion, and the latter is still reeling from the fallout. But the style of Eddie Coyle is the perfect accompaniment to a story about a man slouching through life in painful awareness of his rapidly dwindling outs. Fittingly, the editing does not allow us the privilege of cutting away from his ragged countenance to give us an escape from taking-in the malodorous fumes of America’s corpse.
Although never once “showy”, The Friends of Eddie Coyle really is a kind of perfect storm of film craft, although this silent, wound-up killer of a film is less a rattling maelstrom than the kind of hurricane that hovers off at a not-quite-safe distance, taunting you with the awareness of death more than the fact of it. Cinematographer Victor Kemper was always among the most unheralded cinematographers in the industry, likely because he eschewed a notable, recognizable style for a stylistically omnivorous, elastic ability to adapt to the texture of the film at hand. He laundered the likes of Husbands, Mikey and Nicky, and Stay Hungry in a sense of minimalistic visual ruin and switched-up remarkably for Eyes of Laura Mars and Audrey Rose in knowingly outre visual maximalism that is about as far-flung from those earlier independent works. And that is without mentioning his finest achievement, the sweltering paranoia of Dog Day Afternoon, that is, with its naturalistic urban milieu, simultaneously the closest link to Eddie Coyle and, with its sun-scorched sizzle, the polar opposite of Eddie Coyle where sweat seems to have stopped running years ago.
The ‘80s, of course, did terrible things to him as it did many cinematographers who couldn’t navigate the loss of meaningful adult cinema, although he did manage to coax out the slightly singed, twitchy nostalgia of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the endlessly amusing, barbed Clue in 1985 for a mid-decade two-fister, a spiky cocktail nestled deep in the morass of PBR cinema inebriating the whole damn decade. He seems mostly forgotten today, but his nocturnal eye for the whiskey-soaked life of Mitchum’s aging gun-runner Eddie Coyle keep everything low-to-the-ground, conjuring an alternately vacant and grotty vision of a moribund Boston.
Coyle’s life is on the rocks after a “thing in New Hampshire”, the specifics of which are a fascinating elision in a screenplay that is sometimes too expository for its own good. But his gun-running truck habits have him on the wrong side of the law, prompting a detective (Richard Jordan) to ask Eddie to turn informant against a cabal of bank robbers who Eddie supplied guns to. The makings of a tight and squirrely thriller noir could be unpacked from the screenplay, but the scruffy tone, Mitchum’s hound-dog performance (both aged and for-the-ages), and Kemper’s resigned visual style evoke a once-tightened world where all the screws have already come loose.
Consider the complications surrounding Coyle’s bartender accomplice (played by Peter Boyle) who brokered the gun deal that slammed Coyle against the wall and who is secretly also an informer for the very detective Mitchum is working for. That sounds like one more pepper in a fiery stew, but Eddie Coyle is the abjection of a once-acidic lifestyle having already dissolved the passion, resulting in a resounding and pointedly terrifying whimper when we expect a bang. Although, admittedly, it’s more like a hazy scratched-vinyl hiss with the Altman-esque clatter of polyphonic background sound sabotaging the supremacy of the main characters and their life-or-death conversations. Eddie Coyle’s story, the film suggests, is ultimately irrelevant to the outside world with all its own tenuously breathing humans and other backgrounded lives. To this extent, the bank robbery with the most screen-time is played rather mordantly. The bank owner informs his workers not to panic, cut against a reaction shot of the bank workers, guns to their faces, looking like they’ve seen it all before.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is never curated or overly poised, as it is too frayed to do anything but be on the lookout for itself with every passing moment, effectively skewering the once-swaggering demeanor of a Mitchum noir with resonances in America’s post-industrial slump. Torn between the crawling awareness of imminent demise and the too-fried-to-care resignation to the certainty of comeuppance, this is jaded, mordant, death-stricken ‘70s cinema at its near-finest. Death almost seems a preferable alternative to the abjection of creeping through each step of life in fear of triggering the final bullet. Although the film perhaps wants for all-time masterpiece status, Mitchum’s cathartic work in the title role certainly fits the bill. Paradoxically energizing his classic machismo through exhuming its corpse and embracing its scarred, beaten-down reality, each crack on Mitchum’s face, and each nervous crack of a joke that emerges from his mouth, wears the weight of decades of uneasy living.
The climax of the film positions one of the friends of Eddie Coyle, post-hockey game staged as an animal cage, in and out of a vacillating light flashing over their face, but the tone is hardly a party. Instead, it’s the sight of a man torn over destroying the already desolate life of a pathetic gangster. The latter is doomed to rest in a car behind the neon-light of a billiard hall, the light itself indecisively flipping on and off, a happy-time location for loners flickering like the light between life and death. There’s a sleepy texture to the film, but it’s definitely not a narcotic, and it spasms in its sleep. Right to the end, the film’s faint, barely-beating disposition is more like a sense of lived-in lethargy, distilled.