When British-born director Peter Yates passed away back in 2011, there was little fanfare. Most of the minor news items announcing his passing mentioned him as the director of the ice-cold Steve McQueen-starring cult classic Bullitt (1968), but failed to name-check any of the other superb films that he’d made, including the likes of Breaking Away (1979), Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Eleni (1985), Eyewitness (1981) and The Dresser (1983). Yates’ most original and fascinating film, however, was 1973’s The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, a seamy, appropriately rumpled adaptation of George V. Higgins’ dialogue-heavy crime novel. After swinging in home entertainment limbo for years, it took (who else?) boutique label Criterion to beautifully restore this previously lost gem to all its bleak, wintry majesty.
Though essentially an ensemble piece, Robert Mitchum towers above all comers as the eponymous Eddie Coyle, a low level crook busting his arse to make ends meet in Boston’s seedy criminal underworld. With an impending court case hanging over him like a black cloud, and a family to support, the upstanding Eddie soon has to contemplate turning snitch, and finds himself caught between a Machiavellian cop (Richard Jordan), a jittery gun dealer (Stephen Keats), a bank robber (Alex Rocco), and a barman/hatchet man (Peter Boyle).
As Higgins’ hipster street poetry rolls from his lips like thick trails of cigarette smoke, Robert Mitchum creates an indelible portrait of working class criminality, for whom toughness is secondary to just getting the job done. Eddie is a sad, desperate figure bordering on Shakespearean tragedy, and it’s one of Mitchum’s finest moments, right up there with The Night Of The Hunter and Cape Fear. The supporting cast is equally impressive, and they all feel 100% authentic as Boston crooks, helped immeasurably by the world weary tone that Peter Yates affects. There’s little on-screen violence, and when banks are robbed or people are taken out, it all just looks like work, rather than anything even resembling outlaw glamour. In this cold, ugly world – which seems to exist under a perennially grey sky – everything feels like it’s dead, or slowly dying, which makes Eddie Coyle’s final grab at survival all the more poignant and ironic. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is an extraordinary rough-cut gem well worthy of rediscovery.