Robert Mitchum is an ordinary man, with an ordinary wife, an ordinary house, and all he wants is an ordinary life. He wants out. Adapted from the novel by George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in premise at least, could be mistaken for any number of crime films. Career criminal wants out and they have one final job that we know, as the genre savvy audience we are, is bound to go south. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle isn’t any crime film, and, as modern as it feels, it is still somehow a member of a rare breed.
Peter Yates, like Alan J. Pakula, Michael Ritchie, Bob Rafelson, etc etc etc, ought to be a household name. Give the guy some credit, he directed Bullitt after all. But while that may have allowed him to have the rather prolific career he wound up having, it didn’t seem to guarantee the audience he’d surely earned. Even just a few years out from the runaway success of Bullitt, Peter Yates’s films were getting almost entirely ignored by the box-office. The Hot Rock, written by William Goldman, being one. The Friends of Eddie Coyle being another.
It has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert gave it 4/4, it’s consistently rated as one of the best crime films of the 1970’s, and yet upon release it barely broke a million. I guess it probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Starring an over-the-hill Robert Mitchum as an over-the-hill small-timer, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a relentlessly grim and gritty film. Rounding out the cast with some of the best character actors of the decade such as Peter Boyle, Steven Keats, and Alex Rocco, you certainly aren’t given much eye-candy. Everyone in this film is “ordinary”, they’re people you’d see on the street and wouldn’t give a second look, they’re certainly not faces you’d put on a poster. Robert Redford has no place in a film like this.
It’s storytelling in the vein of Richard Ford or Raymond Carver, devoid of any artificial romance, as realistic as one can get while still having a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. It’s interesting to look at The Friends of Eddie Coyle, adapted not long after the novel was released, as almost the beginning of the crossroads that would send literary fiction and cinema down two sharply distinct paths. It was that early 70’s period that introduced us to writers like Higgins and Carver who’d soon cement that idea of hard-bitten kitchen sink realism that would go on to be, almost notoriously so, the dominant literary fashion for the next few decades. By contrast, cinema began to go the complete opposite direction, with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas bursting on the scene and in the space of two films virtually invent the blockbuster with 1975’s Jaws and 1977’s Star Wars. You don’t need me to tell you where cinema went after this. We all saw it. Even the smaller personal dramas like Ordinary People had that narrative artifice that Carver and Higgins were fighting tooth and nail against.
A little like the poorly-selling debut album of the Velvet Underground about which Brian Eno once said, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” The Friends of Eddie Coyle’s influence on the crime genre is huge. The man who’d go on to be king of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard, said the novel was “the best crime novel ever written… [George V. Higgins] saw himself as the Charles Dickens of crime in Boston instead of a crime writer. He just understood the human condition and he understood it most vividly in the language and actions among low lives.” And just like Leonard, the work of George V. Higgins translates better to the screen than near anything else I can think of.
In 2012, another criminally underrated director, Andrew Dominik, released Killing Them Softly. Adapted from another George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade, and starring Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly was another sharply written, sharply directed, sharply acted, gritty crime film that just failed to find an audience. Almost from the premiere it had been sent straight to the “cult film” bin. A little wordier than The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and a little slower, it’s just as great a film. Hopefully, with any luck, someone will come along and give us another Higgins adaptation, just as razor sharp and waterproof, and he’ll finally get the wide audience his writing deserves.