Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle

Working Class Villains in ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’

The Friends of Eddie Coyle presents a tragic character study of a working-class criminal who comes to realize he's wasted his life.

The best crime films are raw and thought-provoking. Realistic slice-of-life cinematic criminal character studies embody these traits and more. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), possibly the iconic Robert Mitchum’s finest hour, captures the true essence of the undesirable life of a criminal from a humanist, down-on-your-luck perspective.

The film also expertly captures the classic “New Wave” style of the era. The ’70s reflected a brilliant and interesting time for cinema. Hollywood productions featured many daring films, some decidedly “less slick” than the current franchise-heavy studio products. Grittiness and realism pervaded through a number of Hollywood and independent films. Often, melodramatic features embodied a documentary-like feel that allowed the films to strike powerful emotional cords.

Documentarian voyeurism permeates the style of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The stylistic approach allows the viewer to casually peer unnoticed from afar and absorb a cultural lesson while watching the end of days for Eddie Coyle and his friends.

Who Is Eddie Coyle?

The title character stands as an amoral yet sympathetic figure. He’s a low-level gunrunner who aims for a modest level of financial success. The viewer, of course, doesn’t need to be a criminal to sympathize with Coyle’s situation. The man simply wants a better life for himself and his family, but a lack of work and opportunity drag him down. Eddie Coyle is not, however, someone who doesn’t deserve his fate. He’s a flawed person who made terrible choices in life and now must pay the price. The character reflects the darkly tragic nature found in so many early ’70s crime films. The dimension of being a family man further adds to his pathos. Eddie Coyle not only failed himself in life; he failed his wife and son, too.

The cinematic journey of “two-bit crook” Eddie Coyle picks up at the tail-end of his career, a career that reflects a wasted life. Crime definitely did not play for Eddie Coyle. He made a few dollars as a gun-runner, but the money he earned obviously wasn’t enough to live the high life. While out of work, Coyle took a “no questions asked” delivery job. The discovery of illegal cargo in his truck leads to the aged Coyle facing years in jail away from his family.

And his friends don’t help his situation.

Eddie Coyle’s friends are not really true friends. They are acquaintances and criminal associates. In his lonely life, such persons are the only ones Eddie has any real interactions with outside of his family. His “friends” are users who rely on Eddie to support their bank robbery schemes as he supplies them with untraceable firearms. Eddie understands these are the only types of people he can have any relationships with, regardless of how destructive the relationships are. His lot in life leaves him with seemingly few choices and directions.

And the life Eddie lives truly reflects a destructive path.

“What makes it hurt worse is knowing what happens to you,” Eddie Coyle says this to a young hoodlum as a warning not to cause him troubles on an upcoming job. Eddie understands imprisonment or death are impossible to avoid when living a life of crime. Young persons lack the experience and perspective to see beyond their feelings of invulnerability. Eddie tries to warn the young man of the path that is impossible to avoid.

What a shame Eddie Coyle didn’t take his own advice and just quit when he was younger and still capable of taking a different path.

As his criminal career comes to a close, Eddie’s projections to the young hoodlum reveal self-admonishment and regret over a wasted life. Eddie probably feels a tremendous amount of loneliness and misery. All this hurts worse because Eddie knows nothing positive can come out of another small-time gun selling score. Besides, he’s slated to be sentenced to a long stretch in prison. Unfortunately, there’s seemingly nowhere to go, as he already passed up other opportunities to straighten out his life in the past.

Or does he have another opportunity? Eddie can turn in his friends and, hopefully, avoid prison. Or is it much too late to cut a deal? For Eddie, nothing comes easy and life always remains the perpetual struggle and bad choices.

Eddie fights his conscious over saving himself from prison. To do so, he must harm those who comprise the twisted friendships he’s formed… Eddie’s strange subcultural life does come with a code — a code that exists in the shadow of polite society.

Polite society does exist in a far different neighborhood than where Eddie Coyle resides.

Working-Class Survival and Its Discontents

The Friends of Eddie Coyle presents more than an isolated character study. The film effectively captures the imagery of the working-class underbelly, a common trait in scores of crime films of the era such as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Fingers (1978). The early ’70s were a time of significant urban decay in America. New York City, in particular, was a commonly chosen location to display blight. The city became a symbol of the fall from grace of the American metropolitan landscape. Although this film takes place in Boston, the sentiment is the same. Age and decay rot the landscape and those left behind economically must do what they can to survive.

Eddie’s moral compass has no problem with facilitating bank robberies through providing a criminal gang with guns. After all, the gang doesn’t hurt anyone as long as the robbery victims go along with the plans. Stealing money from a bank is like stealing money from the same system that contributed to working-class neglect and decline. While outside the law, Coyle simply tries to provide for his family amidst struggling times. He takes personal risks for the proverbial greater good. He doesn’t want his wife and children to go on public assistance. His crimes — in his eyes — are merely ways of making money outside the parameters of an unfair and cruel system.

He’ll defy the system at great risk, but he won’t take handouts from the system. Eddie Coyle is working-class. Beating the system by moving stolen guns to facilitate stealing from the system reflects a perverse form of work.

Eddie can’t work from jail, though. Facing time in prison, he chooses to become an informant. Acting an informant, to Eddie, is just another job designed to help him get by. He’s working for the feds to stay out of jail and keep providing for his family, something he cannot do from the inside of a prison cell.

Working as an informant, however, is not too far removed from working as a criminal. The classic cinematic criminal knows too much and cannot walk away from any deal with the authorities. A crook becomes locked into the indentured servitude of criminal activity. Being an informer places him in a similar position. Once the federal authorities know Eddie needs them to avoid a harsh sentence, he becomes an indentured servant to their cause. They know they can abuse him like the “system” is prone to do.

Is it any wonder Eddie Coyle desperately wants to get away from this scene?

The Aging Eddie Coyle

Eddie Coyle provides clear motivation as to why he keeps buying and reselling stolen guns:

I’m getting old… I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks drinking the beer and eating the hash and the hot dogs watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how to play the plumber … next time it’s me going to be going to Florida.

A running theme among Eddie Coyle and his friends is the desire for retirement. Like Coyle, the leader of the bank robbers has plans reminiscent of the lyrics from Midnight Cowboy’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” — he plans on “going where the sun keeps shining”. They need to get out of this life — not only because the law may be catching up with them, but age is catching up with them as well. The time has come to cede the criminal scene to younger persons. A different type of criminal, younger and with different motivations, now looks to take a prominent role.

Coyle may no longer even be cut out for his illicit side job anymore. His retirement may be a forced one. Although his trade is moving stolen firearms, Eddie doesn’t like the indiscriminate nature of machine gun fire. His trust lay in the classic, traditional revolver. He even questions the mindset of someone who would use machine guns in a crime.

Not too ironically, the customers for machine guns are two “revolutionary hippie” types. They wish to rob a bank as well, but their motivation focuses more on damaging “the system” than personally profiting from it. All this is foreign to someone like Eddie Coyle. Crime and violence seems to be changing and Eddie Coyle sees his way as becoming a thing of the past. Eddie knows his career is winding down, which is why he now thinks of performing one last deal and getting out.

The heist (film still)

Everything changes when the next bank heist leads to a murder. Eddie, although only peripherally involved in the robbery, finds his ability to cut a deal, save the money from his last score, and retire increasingly difficult. The authorities want more. And they may not even be planning to honor their end of the bargain. Eddie shouldn’t be surprised. Law enforcement is another wing of the all-powerful, stifling system.

Indeed, the feds are hardly fair to Eddie. Life is not fair to Eddie. He knows it and accepts what seems to be his lot. Considering all the trouble Eddie finds himself in due to informing, it’s clear that his time in this world is not for long. Suspicions in the underworld about his informing arise. So does the danger level.

“Never ask a man why he’s in a hurry…”

Although a crime film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle doesn’t play out like a crime-action movie. The feature appears more like a soap opera, beginning at the point when long-time character is being written out. Audiences track this final journey to its tragic ending. Eddie Coyle’s life reaches a conclusion that was never avoidable. Films of this nature from this era didn’t even attempt to escape their downbeat proceedings. While not uplifting, The Friends of Eddie Coyle provides warnings and lessons that we all — criminals or not — might heed.