The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an amusing, intentionally misleading title. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) doesn’t have any friends. He has various criminal contacts he sees on a regular basis, but he doesn’t consider any of them friends. Mitchum’s a down-on-luck small-time crook who’s about to go away for a couple years. He didn’t rat, which just makes Peter Boyle–who set up the crappy job for Mitchum–even more of a jerk for teasing Mitchum about his impending doom.
Mitchum just wants to stay out so his family doesn’t have to go on welfare. It could be a tragic story, but Mitchum’s not really the focus of the film. Instead, it’s fairly even divvied between The Friends.
Boyle works at a bar where the criminals hang out and he spies on them for federal agent Richard Jordan. Mitchum also tips off Jordan on occasion. Jordan’s merciless without being cruel. He goes out of his way not to be cruel, just merciless.
Then there’s the other half of The Friends. Alex Rocco and Joe Santos are bank robbers. Mitchum supplies their guns, buying them from Steven Keats. Keats is a relative newcomer to gun dealing and a lot of the film follows him and his methodical approach to his trade. Rocco and Santos’s bank heists are similarly elaborate. Yates likes the procedural scenes. Pat Jaffe’s editing on these sequences is exquisite; they lacks dramatic weight, but they’re still masterfully executed.
Some of the problem with Friends’s dramatic weight is, frankly, Dave Grusin’s boppy score. The style might be contemporarily appropriate, but it still needs to fit the action and carry the drama. The score’s usually silly in procedural scenes and it’s fine. It doesn’t get in the way. But then when the film needs Grusin to carry some dramatic weight? Especially during the problematic third act. By then, the film’s given up on a consistent narrative rhythm and Grusin’s got to move scenes forward. The music needs to do something special. It needs to payoff.
Paul Monash’s script maybe could be better. The Friends are usually humanized in way to not make them seem bad. Even Keats, who’s only onscreen when he’s being a creep, gets humanized. But not Peter Boyle. He’s just a bad guy. Mitchum’s top-billed, plays the title character, and he practically could get an “and” credit. If it weren’t for the bank robber subplot, the film would go from being about Keats to being about Boyle and Jordan. Monash gets through it, maybe trying a little hard on the Boston criminal vocabulary, which often makes expository dialogue clunk. It’s just clear there’s got to be a better way to do this story. Monash’s script doesn’t crack it.
Yates’s direction is good. Best on procedural stuff because he too can’t figure out how to maintain consistent distance from the characters. Even though he’s second-billed and does more than Mitchum, the film’s not comfortable relying on Boyle. Instead it goes to Jordan, who’s good and all, he’s just not compelling.
Mitchum’s great. Keats’s great. Rocco and Santos are good. They don’t have a lot to do. Jordan’s good. Boyle’s good. With Boyle, there’s a definite disconnect between how Boyle’s doing the performance and how Yates’s shooting it. Boyle needs to be spellbinding. He’s not. He’s just good.
And, similarly, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is good. With some unfortunate qualifications.
Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by Paul Monash, based on the novel by George V. Higgins; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Pat Jaffe; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Monash; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Robert Mitchum (Eddie), Peter Boyle (Dillon), Richard Jordan (Foley), Steven Keats (Jackie Brown), Alex Rocco (Jimmy Scalise), Joe Santos (Artie Van), and Mitchell Ryan (Waters).