Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

An interesting and underappreciated sub-genre in film history is that of the gangster films of the 60's and 70's. Under direct influence from the French Nouvelle Vague directors such as Godard and Trouffaut (themselves influenced by American gangster flicks of the 30's, 40's and 50's) these films are tonally and thematically different from crime film from other eras as they play provocatively with issues of ethics and morality while creating a realistic and gritty visual language that would influence both genre films and movies in general for years to come. Among the most famous examples of films from this era are Friedkin's The French Connection, Boorman's Point Blank and Mike Hodges' Get Carter. British directors proved especially adept at making such films and among those were the underappreciated (and often entirely forgotten) Peter Yates. Yates is perhaps most famously known for directing the ultra-slick and ridiculously good Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt but he also directed a little-known gem of a film in 1975 called The Friends of Eddie Coyle that is both a prime example of the power of this particular kind of film and also includes one of the best Robert Mitchum performances in his long and illustrious career.

Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle

Eddie Coyle is a career criminal, someone who didn't have any particular talents in life and decided the easiest way for him to make a buck for himself and his family was to engage in some unlawful activity. Eddie is engaged in anything lucrative and relatively non-violent but mostly he sells guns. He's connected with all sorts of powerful people and is an expert at providing a wide variety of weaponry in as short a time as possible. He gets mixed up with a young gunrunner named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), provides the necessary tools for an especially efficient bank-robber (Richard Jordan) and finds himself ratting out several people to an ambitious police detective (Alex Rocco). The latter activity is one of necessity as Eddie just got caught hauling a truckload of whiskey across the border as a favor for his gangster friend Dillon (the great Peter Boyle). Since Eddie can't handle going back to jail, having a wife and two kids to feed, he gives up some gangsters to the cops and soon finds himself an underworld target.

Alex Rocco as a quintessential 70's cop

A pretty basic plotline, to say the least. But the film is all nuances, slight jazzy riffs on human nature and the grey lines between the white and black of right and wrong. People who seem evil and cruel turn out to have a great deal of decency and the supposedly just engage in some pretty petty maneuverings. The film is beautifully laconic, almost sad in its slow pacing and non-judgmental camerawork, simply showing and observing. That being said, Yates doesn't seem primarily interested in the details of what cops and robbers do but is rather attempting to catch glimpses of spiritual and existential states in people who live a life at the edge of society, continually skirting violence and danger. All the actors turn in absolutely wonderful performances but Mitchum is at the top of the heap, using his world-weary demeanor and tired face to portray a man at the end of his rope, someone who has fought to stay ahead in life without stepping on too many toes but who continually finds himself unable to do the right thing because he keeps taking the easy way out. There is a kind of frightening nihilism at the heart of the film but unlike some other notable films from the 70's the film faces this loss of meaning head-on, addressing it as an artistic and philosophical issue. The cops and criminals in this film are simply people doing a job and it never seems to even enter their mind to speak about what they do in terms of right or wrong. In a society that largely neglects and ignores spiritual and ethical discourse and focuses entirely on material gain, leisure and comfort a film such as this serves as an interesting representation of the kind of ennui and confusion that dominate the lives of so many people in our modern world. Eddie Coyle is a tragic hero for our age, someone who is headed for a meaningless death after a difficult and empty life, a gangster-Sysiphus that reminds us of the necessity to seek meaning, wisdom and value in our life, to reach after truth, beauty and goodness lest we become mired in a swamp of meaninglessness and despair.

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