By Justin LaLiberty
By the time of the 1973 release of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, director Peter Yates already had two great crime films under his belt in the form of Bullitt and The Hot Rock. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both of those were based on novels as well, creating a throughline of late 60s through early 70s pulp that was never equalled by another filmmaker – though folks like Walter Hill and William Friedkin certainly tried.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle trades the hectic San Francisco of Bullitt and the frenetic New York City of The Hot Rock for a much more subdued, though still urban and gritty, Boston. It finds itself in similar footing to other Boston set crime films, most notably those inspired by books from Boston-based crime author Dennis Lehane – The Drop, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River – as well as other contemporary genre offerings like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Ben Affleck’s The Town. When Yates was shooting The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Boston was an underutilized city on screen, rendering its back alleys, freeways and even its sports arenas new – the Boston that Eddie Coyle inhabits feels strangely ethereal, as if only lived in by its cast of characters.
And about that cast of characters: Robert Mitchum plays the titular Eddie Coyle, Richard Jordan as a detective, Peter Boyle as an informant, Alex Rocco as a violent crook, and Steven Keats as gun runner “Jackie Brown.” Each of Coyle’s “friends” is given ample screen time to be established, helped by a pace much more leisurely than many of its genre’s contemporaries, even if their motives remain justifiably vague at times. And, of course, Boston serves as a character itself with its windy roads, dark streets and that impossible to disguise accent.
When placing The Friends of Eddie Coyle in the pantheon of 70s American crime cinema, it’s nearly peerless. Even Yates’ prior films feel much more American in pace and subject. The Friends of Eddie Coyle could best be paired with the cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, particularly the robbery themed Le Doulous, Le Deuxieme Souffle and Rififi – with its languid pacing, cast of unsympathetic characters and tense, yet sparse, heist sequences.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle reaches its climax (though not necessarily its end) at a Bruins game – as Boston as Boston can Boston – and it’s not under good circumstances. By now, people have been crossed, double crossed, fucked over, left for dead or worse. This is crime cinema without good guys or bad guys – just guys. The friends of Eddie Coyle are hardly friends at all, creating a title rife with some 70s irony, but they’re bound by a code that can make or break them. If there’s anything Yates’ film and the contemporary Boston noir of the 21st century have in common, it’s that every man lives and dies by their word. And only they’re responsible for their downfall. In the words of Detective Dave Foley, “The only one fuckin’ Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”