Saturday, May 30, 2009

Degrees of Cool

The Friends of Eddie Coyle came out thirty-five years ago and I've been wanting to see it for at least the last twenty-five, ever since stumbling upon Roger Ebert's rave review in one of his anthologies of film criticism. Now, thanks to Criterion, it's finally available on DVD, and the results are both expected and surprising. Expected in that it's an absorbing early-70s crime drama -- gritty, downbeat, and character-driven; surprising in how little "action" there is in a film featuring bank heists, gun-dealings, and assassinations -- and how little the lack of it matters.

Adapted from the Boston-based novel by George V. Higgins (an author I've heard of but never read), The Friends of Eddie Coyle casually weaves a tangled plot featuring the stool pigeon of the title, Eddie (Robert Mitchum), a low-ranking, avuncular thug willing to rat out his underworld connections to his cop acquaintance Det. Foley (Richard Jordan) in order to get an approaching sentence waived. Foley is on the trail of a quartet of unorthodox bank robbers (led by Alex Rocco, as calm and rational here as he was hot-headed and impulsive playing Moe Greene only a year earlier in The Godfather) and, unbeknownst to Eddie, is using another surreptitious contact with criminal ties, a local bartender named Dillon (Peter Boyle) who freelances as a hit-man during his spare time.

Five years earlier the skillful British director, Peter Yates, made Bullitt, another gripping crime procedural starring Hollywood's other "Mr. Cool" (of whom Mitchum once quipped, "He sure don't bring much brains to the party, that kid") and featuring a famous car chase along the bumpy vertical streets of San Francisco. Yates is working on a different coast and in a different tempo in Eddie Coyle; the film is basically a series of verbal confrontations where the better talker emerges the victor. It's the threat of bodily harm that Eddie uses, for example, against cottage-industry arms dealer Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) to get a handful of machine guns; it's the threat of prison that Foley uses against Eddie to get the information he needs.

It's a lesson obviously learned by Quentin Tarantino, and not just because the aforementioned name became the title of one of his movies. (Jackie Brown -- both the movie and Pam Grier's character -- is better known as an amalgam of "Jackie Burke," the protagonist in Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, and Grier's 70s blaxploitation flick Foxy Brown, but it's clearly a nod to this picture as well.) Tarantino, as a filmmaker, has been typecast as a hyperviolent stylist, when actually (with the exception of Kill Bill Vol. 1) it's the threat of violence that looms over his films, with words used as weapons. The dialogue in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (scripted by Paul Monash, though taken mostly, I've read, from Higgins's novel) is memorable though less stylized than out of the mouths of Tarantino's characters. And nobody talks a better game than Mitchum. I suspect QT was also taken by the idea of a comeback by a once-famous icon from an earlier era (cf. Travolta in Pulp Fiction, David Carradine in Kill Bill), and Mitchum brings plenty to the table. He's focused here in a way he often wasn't when coasting on his street cred; he gives Eddie a quiet desperation, a middle-aged vitality, and a way of not being as smart as he thinks he is.

The only flaw in the movie is a regrettably bouncy, tone-deaf jazz score that works at cross-purposes with the gallows-humor ambiance. Not sure why Yates included it or if it was thrust upon him; but the performances (led by Mitchum -- one of the best of his long, notorious, remarkable career -- as well as Peter Boyle's weirdly hot-wired passivity) and atmosphere more than compensate. It should be mentioned that Yates was a versatile director, whose most famous film may be the warm-hearted, Indiana-set, bicycle-racing comedy Breaking Away. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a world apart from that picture, yet it shares (as many foreign-born filmmakers have been able to convey) a genuine feel for America, a fascination for its people, a knack for suggesting what makes them tick. Just when we've all but forgotten that movies can do this, this one has returned to remind us.

As an aside, here's the Criterion Collection cover, which is admittedly handsome:

But I prefer the original poster art; what do you think?


Jason Bellamy said...

I think I need to check this out. Good review. I love critics who can talk about movies in a way that makes me understand them without really knowing that the move is about, if you follow me. (And good observations on QT.)

As for the last question: The color contrast -- while typical of the era -- is a bit much on the poster. But I'm a sucker for posters. The DVD cover is certainly sharp, though. (How's that for avoiding the question, while answering it?)

Craig said...

Don't let the music over the opening credits scare you -- it's hideous but gradually drops out of the picture. (Jazz in the 70s, synthesizers in the 80s -- what is it with generic Hollywood scores through the decades?) It's a film that gets under your skin after it's over. Not quite great, but essential viewing for fans of Mitchum and/or 70s cinema.

I'm a sucker for the retro look of that poster.

JD said...

The top one is interesting but the original poster with its two neon colors was a brilliant ad to draw in the customers. I grew up during the poster period where "a picture was worth a thousand words."

Heaven Knows Mr Allison was another good movie.