“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” may be the most relentlessly downbeat crime movie ever made, and that’s saying something for a film from the 70s, which seemed to be an era of characters actors starring in brutal films with downbeat endings. Think “Serpico,” in which Al Pacino gets shot in the face, or “The French Connection,” in which Gene Hackman accidentally shoots another cop, or “Mean Streets,” in which Robert De Niro gets shot in the neck.
I’m going to go ahead and spoil “Eddie Coyle” right now, so if you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading. Eddie Coyle, a low-level Irish-American gangster in Boston played by Robert Mitchum, gets shot in the head. You expect it not to happen, because it’s Mitchum, after all, and even though he plays Eddie Coyle as a sad sack and a punching bag, he has wary eyes and a keen sense on how quickly friends can turn on you. He’s experienced it once before, when a crime went badly, and his fellow gangsters apologetically punished him by putting his hand in a drawer and kicking it closed, shattering his knuckles. “However many knuckles you have,” Mitchum tells a young gun runner, “I have twice as many.” In fact, they call Eddie Coyle “fingers,” which may reference the fact that he’s a man who knows how to get things, or it may reference the incident with the knuckles.
Eddie Coyle is in trouble. He drove a truck as a favor to a local hoodlum, played by Peter Boyle as a sort of dopey-eyed savant, and the truck was filled with stolen merchandise. Eddie is looking at doing time, which he very badly does not want to do, and so he’s looking to sell some information to a wheedling, nakedly manipulative DEA agent played by Richard Jordan. But if Coyle gives up information that is too good, such as his relationship with a gang of local bank robbers, they will kill him. And so he hands over a small-time gun dealer, Steven Keats, who buys military weapons from kids and sells them to hippies. This is the same fellow, by the way, that Coyle told the knuckle-breaking story to, and the point of his story was simple: In this business, you have no friends, and can trust nobody.
Coyle’s participation in his own story is surprisingly limited — he’s as much a minor character in his own murder as he is in the Irish gang he supplies. The films spends as much time with Steven Keats, whose gun running business is nothing but endless long drives punctuated by moments of pure paranoia. The film also spends a lot of time with the bank robbers, led by Alex Rocco, who have a nasty but effective trick for getting a safe open: They show up at the bank manager’s house in the morning dressed in masks and tell the man they will kill his family if he doesn’t get them into the vault.
And the film spends a little bit of time with Peter Boyle, who has a sanguine sort of philosophy about crime, expressed in a dull monotone from behind the bar he owns. Boyle is also quietly an informant to the DEA, but, as the film progresses, it becomes clear he is something more: He’s a sort of hidden local crime boss, a secret nerve center at the middle of the story. It’s not entirely clear how he fits into all this, except that it turns out he’s skilled at two things: Covering for himself, which he does with the help of the unwitting DEA, and contract killing. At the end of the film, the bank robbers have run into trouble, and once again Eddie Coyle is taking the fall for it. The mob puts a contract out on him, and Boyle picks it up, and Boyle goes about his business with barely any finesse — his plan involves a steak dinner and a hockey game, which is either intended to get Coyle’s guard down or to send him out as the end of a few friendly gestures. Perhaps both.
There is a reason this film is so downbeat, and why it is nonetheless considered a classic. The film is an adaptation of the well-regarded novel of the same name, authored by George V. Higgins, and Higgens had long experience with actual crime. He was a deputy assistant attorney general and Assistant United States Attorney, as well as having worked as a journalist and having been Assistant U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, explicitly tasked with addressing organized crime. He borrowed the story of Eddie Coyle from a number of sources, including Billy O’Brien, a former bank robber who was gunned down in Boston. And then there was O’Brien’s alleged killer, Whitey Bulger — he was a bar owner, a killer, and an informant, and Higgins admitted he was the basis for Peter Boyle’s character.
Bulger is probably more famous now as the inspiration for Frank Costello, the character played by Jack Nicholson in “The Departed.” But there is something far more menacing about Boyle’s portrayal. His gangster is very workaday — they all are in this film, as though crime were a working class profession, done with no great enthusiasm, just a grind like any other job. Ambition costs you in this world — when the bank robbers go down, Boyle shrugs it off, saying they knew there were risks in going after money like that.
But, then, everything costs you: Coyle, who was already looking at doing time, is murdered for no reason at all. There’s a terrible cynicism to this film, and the novel that inspired it, but it probably represents a truer look at crime than most: You don’t have friends in this world. You just have people who haven’t betrayed you yet.