Cult Movie: Robert Mitchum's The Friends of Eddie Coyle is criminally overlooked

Robert Mitchum in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle
Ralph McLean

The Friends Of Eddie Coyle

BASED on a novel by George V Higgins and directed by Peter 'Bullit' Yates, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is a strange proposition.

A hard boiled, noir flavoured tale of medium level gangsterism on the early 70s mean streets of a very bleak looking Boston, it’s an oddly wordy and thoughtful study of just what life in the underworld must really have been like for those forced to do the donkey work without gathering the glory.

Those expecting the big budget thrills of The Godfather are destined to be disappointed. Those willing to take a trip into the seedy underbelly of American crime, though, are in for rare treat.

Front and centre of this intelligent 1973 thriller is Robert Mitchum who plays Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle, the downbeat loser at the film’s core, with one almighty shrug of world weary indifference. Understated and totally believable, he shuffles through this grim world of late night diners, dimly lit dive bars and faceless car parks like a shadow in a faded raincoat.

Hitting his 50s and facing another spell inside, he’s looking for an escape and decides to grass up his paymasters to an undercover cop (Richard Jordan) but nothing goes as smoothly as he hopes.

There are numerous scenes that live long in the memory here. The cold and tense bank robberies his superiors pull off in oddly unsettling plastic face masks spring immediately to mind. Likewise there are the mundane moments where Eddie chats blandly with his wife in their miserable Irish community digs that remind you how great an actor Mitchum really was when given the material to work with.

Hearing him casually relate the story of how a punishment beating he received from Massachusetts mobsters when a criminal caper went sour resulted in him getting his gangland nickname is particularly impressive. Basically it involves our hangdog anti-hero having his hand stuck in a drawer and a gangster foot closing it rapidly with his boot, giving Eddie a new set of knuckles in the process. Listening to Eddie deliver this passionless tale of casual brutality so brilliantly reminds you why Quentin Tarantino is such a fan of the film.

If Mitchum is on top form here he’s not alone. There are memorably under cranked supporting roles for the likes of Steven Keats who plays a young dealer who’s sold down the river by Eddie and Peter Boyle who first appears as a friend but soon morphs into something much more complicated and devastating.

A beautifully understated crime story, it boasts none of the high speed car chases of Yates's previous film Bullit and little of the fast moving crime procedural action of something like The French Connection. It also has a downbeat ending so crushing it should come with a health warning.

As a result of these factors The Friends Of Eddie Coyle failed to find a decent fanbase when it first appeared. All these decades later it’s easy to see it as one of Mitchum’s greatest ever on-screen performances and a film that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

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