Mitchum does downbeat to a T in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle

Robert Mitchum in what is arguably his best on-screen performance
Ralph McLean

THE American film industry of the early to mid-70s was awash with downbeat tales of loners adrift in the world of petty crime and impending violence.

Dark-hearted and pointedly paranoid gems that recalled the classic film noir style of the 40s and 50s but with a decidedly grim post-Watergate world weariness abounded. From Robert Altman’s take on the Raymond Chandler classic The Long Goodbye (1973) to Polanski’s Chinatown (74) and right up to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (76), our cinema screens were swimming in bleak and beautiful visions of life’s seamier side.

Perhaps the absolute bleakest and possibly the most beautiful of those films has lain unloved for way too long, though. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle hit cinema screens in 1973 and has remained strangely neglected on video/DVD/Blu-ray ever since. In fact, outside of expensive imports, the brand new dual format Blu-ray and DVD edition released this month by Eureka Home Entertainment marks the film’s very first UK and Ireland home-video release.

Given the quality we’re talking about here that seemed almost criminal, frankly.

Based on a first-hand crime novel by George V Higgins, it was directed by Peter Yates and starred the great Robert Mitchum in the title role. Mitchum, of course, could do world weary like nobody else and his turn here as small-time criminal Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle might just be his greatest on-screen achievement.

Given that this is a man whose cooler than thou 'couldn’t give a damn' persona graced such towering cinematic achievements as director Jacques Tourneur’s original Noir masterpiece Out Of The Past (1947) and Charles Laughton’s sublime and dreamlike Night Of The Hunter (1955), that is no small statement.

Here he gives a shoulder-shrugging performance of such naturalistic intensity that it’s impossible to think of him as anyone else but the three-time loser Eddie Coyle.

A perpetual also ran in the criminal fraternity, he’s spent most of his life carrying out jobs for the big hitters and running guns when the opportunity arises. Hitting his late 50s and growing increasingly desperate to escape his surroundings, he finds himself arrested during a smuggling scam and while awaiting his sentence is left to ponder his fairly limited options.

As he tries to keep his gangland buddies sweet while also trying to strike a life-saving deal with an undercover cop (played by an excellent Richard Jordan), everything starts to unspool for Eddie.

Mitchum defines downbeat throughout as he slides from one side to the other like, in the words of his police handler, “a stray dog” and his fatalistic journey downwards is pure film noir gold.

Yates, best known for squeezing the best out of Steve McQueen in the much more action packed Bullitt (1968), plays everything as naturalistically as possible here and the result is a slow burning masterpiece of unshowy crime drama. The Boston backdrop is resolutely glum – mostly featuring faceless parking lots and soul-destroying bar rooms – the colours muted and moody.

Eureka’s impressive reissue offers a vintage interview with director Peter Yates with a hefty booklet that puts the film firmly in its historical context.

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