Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
A year or so ago, a former student of mine passed away. He was an older gentleman who had moved to the area from somewhere up north, and from the frequent conversations we had about his past life, it became clear to me that, during the 70s and 80s at least, he was "connected."
I started to draw this conclusion early in our student/teacher relationship. On one assignment, where students had to write an essay that focused on defining a term or concept, he came to me to discuss his topic.
"Dr. K," he said (and he actually did call me "Dr. K," and it may be from him that I took the name for this blog), "I want to write my paper about the 'sit down.'"
"What do you mean by 'sit down'?" I asked.
"You know, when guys back in the neighborhood would have a disagreement--we'd have to have a 'sit down' before things got out of hand."
That was my second inkling that this student had had a colorful past. The first was the fact that he was missing about half his pinky on his left hand.
Now, my only knowledge of organized crime--with the exception of one event from my childhood that I won't get into here--comes from movies and TV. So, when I first started to suspect about this student's past, I immediately dismissed the suspicions as a product of an overactive imagination and an excessive fondness for The Sopranos.
In fact, one of the things we talked about a lot was movies. It was through these conversations that he gave me more information about his past, letting me know that my suspicions were on the right track. And the one movie that came up in every single conversation we had about movies, over the course of several years, was The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
I liked to talk about Robert Mitchum under any circumstances. Out of the Past is one of my favorite films noir, and I still consider Night of the Hunter to be the scariest movie I have ever seen. So I had no problem with these conversations veering off in the same direction.
But it became clear over the course of time that he wanted to talk about The Friends of Eddie Coyle as a way into talking about his own past--that the film was an accurate reflection of the life that he remembered from that time, and that he felt a profound connection to Eddie Coyle himself. Had he made slightly different choices in his life, this student's life could have played out like the movie.
When I recently watched the new Criterion edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, I couldn't help but remember these conversations. Early in the film, when Eddie is talking to Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) about his hands and how he got an "extra set of knuckles," I was reminded of the student's missing half-pinky. This is a fantastic scene, and Mitchum's low-key delivery and world-weariness perfectly establish this character as a life-time, low-level criminal whose vast experience makes him wary of young punks like Jackie. Eddie knows exactly why his hands got mangled--he made a mistake that caused someone else to do time--and he accepts the lesson he received.
This scene also reminded me of another movie where we're forced to look at Mitchum's knuckles: Night of the Hunter. But while Night of the Hunter featured Mitchum at his over-the-top best, he's much more quiet and subdued here, giving an incredibly subtle performance. I love how smoothly Mitchum fits into such a quintessential 70s film, along with actors like Joe Santos, Peter Boyle, Alex Rocco, and Richard Jordan--all actors who are perfectly of the 70s. Mitchum is a giant in this movie--he moves slow and wearily, scraping by on crappy delivery jobs and shady gun deals while working for "The Man," the unrevealed organized crime boss at the top of the heirarchy. Eddie is set to do more time--2-5 years for a bootleg booze delivery job that went bad--and he has to make one last deal before ratting out one of his connections in order to get some favors to help his sentencing.
The movie launches immediately into a world in which the audience is expected to keep up: character relationships are unclear right away, and we don't even know who Eddie is or where he ranks until after 30 minutes into the film. This is similar to the treatment the audience gets while watching The Wire, a series that owes a lot to this type of 70s crime film.
This narrative style is also a product of the film's low-key, deliberate pacing. For example,the film features an extensive, methodical bank robbery sequence told in straightforward, economical shots. According to Peter Yates's commentary on the Criterion DVD, "experienced" advisors on the set helped make this sequence as realistic as possible, and I believe it. Alex Rocco's crew knocks over banks by taking bank managers' families hostage and forcing the managers to allow the crooks into the vault. There is very little dialogue in the sequence, and tension builds through a slow burn. In the end, it's a model sequence for building tension through simple camera movements and editing techniques, and it resembles nothing in film today.
Almost all of the crime in this movie (with one exception) takes place in broad daylight, and in public, shot on location in Boston. This gives the viewer the sense that this stuff goes on anywhere, even in the safest, most innocuous places. Relatively simple scenes also come across as unnerving in this context. Dave Foley (the treasury agent played by Richard Jordan, who will always have a special place in the Dr. K pantheon for his role as Francis in Logan's Run) meets with his informants--including Eddie and Dillon (Peter Boyle), a bar owner who is playing both sides--in parks and public squares. The scenes between Foley and Dillon are shot with a long lens, reminiscent of The Conversation, and this gives the feeling that we are intruding on something that we aren't supposed to hear, even though such conversations could be going on under our noses at any time.
Like many of the great 70s crime movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle has an uncompromising bleakness that is often missing from films today. Yet when I watch this movie again, and I think back to that former student of mine, I get the sense that he got some catharsis out of it, or relief that his path veered from Eddie's at just the right moment.
Here is the film's awesome trailer: