A Few Bad Eggs
The criminally lucrative CSI television franchise has popularized what I like to call the “easter egg” (in the pre-DVD sense of that term) style of crime drama. As in a children’s easter egg hunt, the producers and scriptwriters carefully place brightly colored clues in exactly the locations where the self-important, inhumanly humorless, and, ultimately, childlike “investigators” (that means you, David Caruso, and you too, Emily Procter) are most likely to find them.
And what clues: The killer always seems to have conveniently stepped into a bucket of rare coal-tar creosote that can be found in only three construction sites in northwestern New Jersey just before tracking up the crime scene while wearing limited-edition running shoes that deposit said creosote in a tread pattern unlike that of any other shoe on Earth.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a 1973 crime movie in which the characters step in a lot of crap, but it ain’t creosote. And they find a lot of eggs, too, but every one is rotten. The cops get the criminals by paying off other criminals, and everybody, cop and criminal alike, lies to everybody else. It’s just as it happens, most likely, in real life; the author of the novel on which this movie is based, George V. Higgins, was the genuine article, an Assistant Attorney General and Deputy United States Attorney before embarking on a life of crime writing.
The star of The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real thing, too. Back in the day, Robert Mitchum would have eaten William Petersen for lunch and polished off the pip-squeaky Caruso for dessert. But in this mid-career movie, Mitchum plays a low-wattage character, a lower-middle-class middleman between gun thieves and bank robbers named Eddie “Fingers” Coyle. He has an “extra set of knuckles” from having his hands broken by some crime colleagues earlier in his sad career, he looks like he lives on corned beef hash and coffee, and not surprisingly, he has no real friends.
Mitchum’s performance here is as good as any in his illustrious career and so, too, is that of a largely forgotten actor named Steven Keats as a sleazy, gap-toothed street hustler who provides Coyle with the firepower that Coyle’s pals use in a violent string of bank jobs. Keats drives a chartreuse muscle car to and from his tense assignations with Coyle, with a hippie couple who have mysterious motivations and an appetite for machine guns, and with other assorted low-lifes, and everywhere he goes, he’s accompanied by a classic ‘70s “chunka-chunka wah-wah” score by composer Dave Grusin that is one of the incidental pleasures of this film.
Coyle’s own “low life” is portrayed pitilessly. He’s up for a second stint in the state pen (after having served time on a booze-running rap) and he’s forced to decide if he should leave his wife and children behind or turn snitch, with almost certainly fatal consequences. None of the alternatives are good ones, and as he bounces back and forth between a U.S. Treasury agent (Richard Jordan) and an underworld pal (Peter Boyle, looking here like a Humpty Dumpty bobblehead-doll), the weariness on Coyle’s face and in his soul communicates his bone-deep understanding that his chosen career, and his place in it, have been lose-lose propositions from the very first heist.
The settings for his hopeless negotiations – desolate parking lots, sagging bars and beaneries, and out-of-the-way Boston neighborhoods – each, in their way, seem to visualize Coyle’s entrapment. And most of the other characters are trapped, too: As Keats says, “This life’s hard, man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.” They’re not stupid, most of them, but man, did they ever choose a tough profession; though this film is told almost entirely from their perspective, it never comes close to glamorizing them because we see, at every step, how impossible it is to live one’s life when every single associate is a potential fink or snitch or backstabber.
We also see, in meticulously directed action, just how a gang of bank robbers operate; in its detail, it’s practically an instructional video, except for the part at the end, where the inevitable fate awaits. Later on, the manner in which Coyle himself is betrayed and dispatched is actually almost touching, even though he is in the midst of a backstabbing of his own.
The director, Peter Yates, oversaw the digital transfer and provides an audio commentary for this Criterion Collection DVD. Except for some stills, there aren’t any other extras on the DVD itself, but the disc comes packaged with a glossy 48-page booklet that consists primarily of a first-rate and very funny profile of Mitchum, “The Last Celluloid Desperado,” originally published in Rolling Stone in 1973.
This movie doesn’t achieve greatness because, like Coyle himself, it isn’t very ambitious. But for fans of real crime flicks, as opposed to the artificially colored crud we have in its place today, this DVD and print package is a steal.
Photo Courtesy of the Criterion Collection