Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is nicknamed Fingers by his friends thanks to an old injury to his hand. He explains to a younger criminal, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) when they meet in a Boston diner to discuss a business arrangement just how that name stuck as a way of making it clear that there are some people you do not want to cross, not to mention how dangerous this line of work can he. Basically he was blamed for an associate of powerful gangsters being put away for a long stretch in prison, and there was no way to avoid it, Eddie had to be punished, they were perfectly reasonable about it, this was simply the rules they lived by, so his hand was placed in a drawer that was slammed shut. Now Eddie has four extra knuckles, a permanent reminder of the life he lives…
George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a surprise success when it was published, so naturally the film rights were bought and by and by it was turned into a Robert Mitchum vehicle. But it was no ordinary crime story, or rather it was, it was deliberately mundane and unglamorous, with everything low key and depressing as it built to a downbeat ending that could not have come about in any other way as delineated from the first chapter. And the film was much the same, though while it was following in the footsteps of a popular book, was not the same hit the source was, proving just too much of an ask for audiences to sit through a tale of dour folks meeting morose fates.
Of course, under Peter Yates’ excellent direction and with a cast of actors handpicked for their ability to conjure a grit that summed up the nineteen-seventies’ love of the crime story, there was no way the movie was going to languish neglected for decades, as it amassed a strong appreciation both of those fans of the genre and fans of the way this era had with portraying this milieu. It may play on how crushingly mundane these criminals’ lives are – bank robber Alex Rocco’s cramped but well-furnished trailer is about as good as it gets – but that was the point, and with the law (represented by Richard Jordan always on the lookout for a new “fink”) breathing down their necks at every turn, we can see nothing attractive in this existence, no benefits to it whatsoever.
Especially if your next little scheme goes haywire, you could very well be headed for an early grave thanks to the short tempers and intolerance for failure by those higher up the underworld food chain. And yet, no matter how unexciting this setting appears, Yates managed to ramp up tension in regular bouts, quite an achievement when he was presenting scenes that had been the bread and butter of gangster thrillers ever since the days of silent cinema. Take the first bank robbery, for instance: it’s conveyed with an almost wearily methodical drama, as if everyone involved from victim to wrongdoer was going through the motions, all knowing precisely what was expected of them, but that sense that this was the way things were and probably always will be generated a sickly unease that had the audience on edge.
Naturally, something does go wrong eventually, yet even that was much as we expected, and the manner in which the plot went from A to B with horrible inevitability made for a claustrophobic experience barely leavened with humour or indeed hope. Mitchum, though top billed, was very much part of an ensemble here, which included the talented but tragically shortlived Keats as the gun runner who Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to by naming one of his movies after his character, and Peter Boyle in an apparent secondary role which grows more unexpectedly menacing and important when the last act arrived. As for Mitchum, he was being accused of sleepwalking though his parts quite frequently by this stage, but though he was not showy here his Coyle remained a shabby, weirdly affecting figure whose impending doom gives lie to the title’s suggestion that he has any friends at all. Not a barrel of laughs, then, and don’t expect a ray of sunshine anywhere to be seen, yet its dedication to being quite as miserable as it was demonstrated a curious integrity. Music by Dave Grusin.
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema have released this on a handsome Blu-ray that captures the gunmetal hues of the photography, and has a booklet, Yates giving his career overview, and a critical review as extras. It is dedicated to the late, great film writer Mike Sutton, who penned the essay in the booklet.]