Classic Corner: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Walk through Boston neighborhoods and you’ll see a centuries-old city in a clumsy state of transition. Skyscrapers that look like ice cube trays are erected overnight, overshadowing the churches and marketplaces that were built before Massachusetts incorporated as a state. Fast food franchises squat in red brick storefronts that were once meeting houses and historic printing presses. Prefab neighborhoods, replete with bougie condos, trendy hotels, and Instagram-ready storefronts have sprung up along the waterfront like mushrooms after a storm. 

Fifty years ago, The Hub was in a similar period of transition. The Scollay Square neighborhood, regarded as a hotbed of vice and organized crime, had been razed by the early 1960s, and the brutalist architecture that replaced the burlesque houses and art house theaters began a wave of gentrification that continues to this day. After directing the well-regarded crime films Bullitt and The Hot Rock, Peter Yates shot The Friends of Eddie Coyle in downtown Boston. Its depiction of a city in transition mirrors the shifting fates of its title character. 

For much of his adult life, Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (Robert Mitchum) has worked as a factotum in the Irish mob, supplying guns to a group of robbers holding up banks in the suburbs south of Boston. While his contemporaries begin retiring from organized crime and relocating to Florida, Coyle is staring down a five-year jail sentence for hijacking a truck full of booze for Dillon (Peter Boyle), the owner of a dive bar. He works with ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) to get his sentencing cleared, unaware that one of his associates is also an informant and is implicated in Coyle’s attempts at getting his sentence thrown out. These attempts lead to his tragic, undignified end. 

The plot is hard to summarize, but Yates’s focus on his characters makes the story easier to follow in the moment. His ensemble cast has a natural, if uneasy, chemistry, and his ability to draw out their crackling performances, combined with the film’s loping sense of pace, gives Eddie Coyle the feel of an anti-hangout movie. Robert Mitchum anchors the film with an understated performance as the title character, his perpetually disappointed facial expression and convincing attempt at a Boston accent miles away from the intensity of his earlier performances, giving off a townie grandfather vibe that sets a subtly bleak tone for the rest of the film. 

The novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle focused on the no-name bank robbers and petty criminals who worked smaller jobs in the Boston suburbs. By skipping over more notorious organized crime rackets like The Winter Hill Gang and shooting in the more standard suburban neighborhoods of the South Shore, Yates and screenwriter Paul Monash ground the film in a recognizable reality that emphasizes the banality and the tragedy of Coyle’s life. A throwaway shot where Coyle takes out the trash and sees his kids off to school makes his quest to avoid incarceration more palpable to the viewer, but it also emphasizes how commonplace and how banal organized crime was in Boston at the time. 

Yates and cinematographer Victor Kemper make the most of the desaturated, earth tone-heavy palette popular in many 1970s crime movies. The heavy browns and grays of the modernist buildings and cobblestone sidewalks in Government Center underscore how old the organized crime trade was in Boston at the time, but it also serves as a visual metaphor of how time has passed Coyle by. The prominence of these darker, earthier tones also shows the conflicts among the classes in mid-20th century Boston. In an early scene, a group of thieves take the family of a bank manager hostage in his own home. The natural lighting on the silvery damask wallpaper and the sky blue china in a hutch at the back of the room establishes the bank manager’s WASP bonafides and contrasts sharply with the the brown and burgundy tones and dim lighting of the dive bars and automats where Coyle and his associates conduct most of their business, illustrating the class divide between the bankers and thieves in a way that would register with most viewers. 

Dave Grusin’s score is the most incongruous part of Eddie Coyle. Yates’ focus on character development and the deliberate pacing of the film allowed less space for action sequences, but the percolating basslines and melodic Hammond B3 flourishes anticipate car chases and fast-moving robbery scenes that never come to pass. However, the Blaxploitation-influenced score has an interesting counterpoint in both the Boston of Coyle and his friends and in the desegregation and busing crisis that unfolded a year after Eddie Coyle premiered. Hearing the funky score in the context of a film with a predominantly white male cast prone to dropping racial slurs in casual conversation further emphasized the de facto segregation of Boston in the early 1970s, and foreshadowed some of the problems the city was about to experience. 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is bracketed with a pair of scenes in which Dillon and Agent Foley walk around Government Center, a neighborhood that was as new when the film was made as the Seaport is at the time of this writing. The Union Oyster House storefront and the Steaming Kettle Cafe—two landmarks that opened before the creation of motion pictures—are visible in the background, but both scenes end with a low-angle wide shot of Dillon and Foley talking with the Center Plaza building looming in the background. The dissolution of organized crime in New England is four decades ahead of them, but you can feel the decline of the system that kept Coyle and his friends afloat for as long as they were. If we are in fact living in a new Boston, The Friends of Eddie Coyle could be a last hurrah for an era and a way of life.

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle is streaming on Showtime and Kanopy.

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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