Robert Mitchum is Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a minor gangster in Boston's criminal underclass, whose occupation, when the film opens, is supplying guns to his friends, who are engaged in more serious illegal activities. Coyle is also preoccupied by a past job in New Hampshire that may get him 3 to 5 years in prison. He has always been a stand up guy who refused to rat out his friends or partners, and he assumes those he knows and does business with--his friends--are the same. That simple belief--that trust--what he calls "right" is, as one viewer said, his fatal flaw, especially in the world he inhabits. When, in desperation, he goes against it, he discovers he is on a slippery slope.
Trust and betrayal are major themes in this film. Based on George V. Higgins' novel, the film is a convincing look at those, like Coyle, who matter of factly go about their every day business, which happens to be crime. They meet in bars and parking lots and deserted gravel pits and bowling alleys and parks. And their dialog! It's like hearing real conversations-- it has meaning and weight, not a word rings false. When Coyle tells a gun supplier how he got the nickname "Fingers" he is both philosopher and teacher. As he says (paraphrased), "if you mess up, neither one of us will be able to shake hands." And when Peter Boyle speaks allegorically about eliminating pigeons because they ruin perfectly good suits, he is pragmatic and chilling.
Mitchum's performance as Eddie Coyle can only be described as phenomenal. Neither tough hero nor gung ho marine, he is a baggy eyed, aging felon, with his hair falling over his forehead, who is worried about his family and trying to find a solution to his problem. Like any small time businessman, he goes about his daily routine, moving around Boston and its environs with a kind of weary purpose. He makes deals and phone calls, talks to his friends, meets contacts, gets drunk at a hockey game. It's his way of life. There are a few actors who seem so natural it's hard to believe they are acting, that they are not, in fact, the characters they portray. Mitchum is one of them (Spencer Tracy is another). Every gesture Mitchum makes as Eddie Coyle, every word, every look, is believable, true, sadly real. His Boston accent also sounds perfect...at least to this Texas ear. Peter Boyle, too, is excellent, with his still, expressionless face, his Mona Lisa smile, his observer's passive eye. Steven Keats is remarkable in a breakout role as the tough young gun dealer who, as it turns out, is a little too ambitious. Then there is the too often underrated Richard Jordan, outstanding in a low key performance as Foley, whose dealings with the Boston underworld are open to question. There are other great characters and performances in this film, in which the "Friends" of the title is both pointed and ironic.
When I read Chuck Hogan's "Prince of Thieves" (a scene in that book seems to have been taken right out of this film, by the way), I was intrigued by his portrayal of Boston, which is meant to be and is another character in the book. I looked forward to seeing The Town (the title under which PofT was filmed) in order to see the places Hogan made so vivid. That film was inevitably compared--not very favorably--with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which critics say got the real Boston and its citizens--as opposed to historic Boston or touristy Boston--more nearly right than any other film. Though I've never been to Boston, I think they must be right. According to the DVD commentary by Peter Yates, every single scene of The Friends of Eddie Coyle was shot on location, including interior shots in banks, private homes, and a bar. That authenticity, along with a great story/screenplay and a marvelous cast, makes this film even more compelling. The cryptic plot, the dialog, Mitchum's performance, and Boston itself make it worth watching repeatedly. See it and be glad.
©2012 Marilyn Elliot
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