“This life’s HARD, man. It’s HARDER if you are stupid!”, observes a character at one point in the film. He knows it well because he’s been hanging around people who have made life harder for themselves by making the wrong choices. In other words, they were stupid. But is he smart compared to them? He’ll know soon enough. It would take a viewer a full 30 minutes (or 60 depending on one’s ability to catch up) to get at least half an idea of who is who and what they do in Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ novel of the same name. Higgins was an attorney and journalist by profession and claimed to have an in-depth knowledge of the way criminals operate, and it shows. This is the very first film adaptation of a Higgins book. Another book Cogan’s Trade had been recently adapted for the screen by director Andrew Dominik: Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a film I revisit at least once a year.
Someone talks to someone, this someone talks to someone else and that someone else is connected to someone else and later, we learn that the first someone and the second someone know each other and then someone is informing on someone else. Sounds confusing? This is how we keep track of each character in the first 30 minutes and slowly the connections come to us. It’s a well-crafted, unforgiving and harsh tale of cops, criminals and criminals-turned-informers who may or may not be reformed yet. If French director Jean-Pierre Melville made an American film in the ’70s, this is how it would look. If he were alive today and saw this film, he would greatly appreciate it. The only difference here is that Higgins’ characters don’t adhere to a strict code and can turn into a stool pigeon at the drop of a hat. These are desperate individuals and the eponymous character Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (Robert Mitchum), is one of them — a small-time weapons dealer who is currently looking at jail time on account of driving a truck carrying stolen whisky belonging to someone else.
With a wife and two kids to support, the last place Eddie wants to be in is inside of a dark prison cell. He has done time before, and he has no intention of going back ever again. He is also an informant for a Federal Agent named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) and hopes to get out of doing time by supplying him with some useful information. Dave is an unsympathetic man and pressures Eddie to work harder and keep providing more solid information if he wants the D.A to ease things for him. There are multiple narrative strands and Eddie’s is one of them. There is another one involving a gang of bank robbers and their connection to some of the other characters is only revealed towards the end. They plan and stage their robberies by breaking into the house of a bank employee from each bank — preferably one with a family — threaten them, take the employee hostage, and follow him to the bank where he would instruct the staff to not make any foolish move while the robbers do their thing and slip out quietly. At the same time, there is another character called Dillon (Peter Boyle) who is also an informant for Foley. Dillon and Eddie know each other well but Eddie doesn’t know his little secret.
Someone recently told me that Mitchum has acted in some really good films and he hasn’t done anything that can be called “great”. I disagreed with that statement and pointed out this film and a few others, including the underrated Sydney Pollack film The Yakuza, as some really fine examples. He has indeed acted in some great films but the truth is that he hasn’t had that many great roles to play. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an exception, and in my humble opinion, it’s his finest role. You feel sorry for his character, but at the same time, you wonder why he has no intention to go straight. The story doesn’t make any attempts to glamorize neither the criminals nor the cops. As I had mentioned earlier, these characters are desperate and are willing to forgo their dignity to get what they want. Surprisingly for a crime film, the level of violence is relatively low and patient viewers will be rewarded; it doesn’t exactly move at a snail’s pace but it’s not in a big hurry to get where it’s going either. The film served as one of the influences for Ben Affleck’s The Town.