Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle
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.