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The last decade saw a Beantown boomlet of crime movies set in and around Boston, from The Departed and Mystic River to Gone Baby Gone and The Town. But a 40-year-old mid-level masterpiece from British director Peter Yates (Robbery, Bullitt, Breaking Away) laid the template for this whole subgenre.
Drawn from a groundbreaking crime novel by the late Boston prosecutor George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle unfolds in a bleak and wintry Boston populated by scumbags, fences, gun-runners, rat-finks, junkies, informants, hippie-wannabe bank-heisters, and every species of low-totem mob foot soldier and gangland cannon-fodder. Among these is the titular Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (his digits once got slammed in a drawer by irate criminal associates, earning him “an extra set of knuckles”), a minor crook and ex-jailbird with a family to protect, who is played with an autumnal sense of impending doom by a worn-out, paunchy, hangdog Robert Mitchum in one of his greatest late-career performances (the other was his Philip Marlowe in Dick Richards’ 1975 version of Farewell, My Lovely).
Eddie’s facing sentencing on a liquor-truck hijacking beef in New Hampshire, and even though he’s still actively securing handguns for a busy group of bank robbers, he’s also making moves to dodge his sentence by providing low-key tip-offs and info to a Treasury Agent, Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), who may (or may not) intervene with his sentencing judge. The title is ironic: By the time we meet him, Eddie doesn’t have any real friends left. Every relationship he’s in is fraught with the possibility of betrayal, arrest or murder, and one tip-off to the cops does not secure him the legal intervention he needs. Instead, Foley wants him “to be a goddamn permanent fink,” a prospect that Eddie finds abhorrent.
Moving through a threadbare, underlit milieu of barrooms, pool halls, supermarket-parking-lot gun-exchanges and midnight payoffs, the film draws heavily on the kind of downbeat documentary realism that is imprinted in the creative DNA of any British filmmaker of Yates’ vintage. And here he gives us a number of authentic-looking bank robberies, where the gang holds the bank managers’ families hostage while they empty out the vaults.
But what finally makes it all so persuasive and realistic is talk. Paul Monash’s script was closely adapted from Higgins’ book, and Higgins was essentially a dialogist, spewing out reams of crackling, obscenity-laced criminal speechifying and hard-earned street wisdom that the actors here savor like a banquet. The performances are all pin-sharp, the actors all perfectly cast. Peter Boyle shines as Dillon, a bartender, informant and part-time contract killer, and Jack Kehoe gives good junkie-scumbag in a single scene. Richard Jordan and Steven Keats (as the gun salesman) are so indelibly memorable it’s sad that they both died far too young (Jordan of a brain tumor, Keats by his own hand). Alex Rocco plays the bank robbers’ leader with a volatile mixture of charm and menace. And then there is Mitchum: sad-eyed, understated and—we know from the moment we see him—doomed.
As Keats’ character says at one point, “Life’s hard, man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid!” And it would be stupid, criminally so, to miss this half-forgotten masterpiece.
And if you don’t believe us, maybe A.O. Scott can convince you?
YOU WANT AUTHENTICITY? Try this: Alex Rocco himself had been on the fringes of the Winter Hill Gang in the early ’60s, until a drunken pass at his girlfriend by a mobster from a rival crew somehow ignited a hyper-violent seven-year Boston gang-war that claimed a dozen lives. Rocco (real name: Alexander Petricone) fled town immediately, became an actor in Hollywood, and no one in the Boston underworld knew what had become of him until they saw him get his eye shot out playing Moe Greene in The Godfather.