Home Video Hovel: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by David Bax
In the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro talks about chefs who like to use fatty tuna because its bold flavor gives them more wiggle room. It doesn’t have to be perfect but people will still like it. A lean tuna, on the other hand, is subtle and therefore requires finesse and delicacy on the part of the person preparing it. I thought of that while watching Peter Yates’ 1973 The Friends of Eddie Coyle, available now from the Criterion Collection. There’s nothing flashy about it, no action thriller theatrics like big shootouts or lengthy car chases. It’s a slimmed down and note-perfect crime story. It has so few missteps that you will find yourself pulled in without realizing until it’s over just how deep it went.
Robert Mitchum stars as Eddie Coyle, a truck driver who runs guns on the side and who is close to being sent to prison for a truck hijacking gone wrong. The film sees him going about his business, which brings him into contact with a bigger gun dealer named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) and a group of bank robbers led by Jimmy Scalise (the recently departed Alex Rocco). Meanwhile, he drinks at a bar owned by Dillon (Peter Boyle) and tries to leverage his future and stay out of jail by providing information to Detective Foley (Richard Jordan).
In Scalise and Brown, we get a rare portrait of criminals who are not only very smart but very hardworking. Scalise’s robberies are planned down to the most minute details. And watching Brown undertake the purchase of machine guns without getting robbed and/or killed himself is a master class in tactics and strategy. Yates lets these things play out in real time with patience and respect for the process. You can see the influence of Jules Dassin’s Rififi here just like you can see the influence of The Friends of Eddie Coyle in a later methodical crime film like Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun.
The other, more unfortunate way The Friends of Eddie Coyle’s influence can be found in later crime films – and the movie’s only sour note – is in the casual racism on display. Tarantino must be a fan of this film. His work contains many of the same pointlessly tossed epithets. Where The Sopranos used its characters’ racism to comment on their place in and relation to the rest of society, too many of these types of movies employ slurs to generate some simulacrum of authenticity.
At least that element makes up a very tiny percentage of the movie. The rest of it is taken up by great actors executing a great screenplay while Yates wields a meticulous hand that guides the film through a tight cadence with ceaseless momentum. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a masterful crime film, on par with the best of the genre.
Special features include an audio commentary by Yates and a booklet including an essay by Kent Jones and a Rolling Stone profile of Mitchum.