1973. Directed by Peter Yates. Written by Paul Monash. Based on George V. Higgins’ novel. With Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Alex Rocco and Joe Santos. Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper.
ALL HAIL EDDIE. THE gritty film adaptation of attorney turned writer George V. Higgins’ terse debut novel is the best movie ever made in Boston, a touchstone with a legendary status enhanced by the fact that it’s never been released on any form of home video.
Director Peter (Bullitt) Yates’ movie is one of the few post-1960 color thrillers to capture the desperation and doom of 1940s and 1950s film noir. Of course, it helps to have Robert Mitchum, who headlined such vintage noirs as Out of the Past and Pursued, playing the title character. Mitchum and his hangdog persona perfectly embody the weariness of Coyle, an aging, working-class crook awaiting sentencing for transporting stolen goods who reluctantly becomes a police informer in hopes that his tips to “uncle” will win him leniency.
Like Higgins’ novel—which is almost experimental in its preferred use of two-character dialogues instead of conventional narrative—The Friends of Eddie Coyle atmospherically presents the workaday tug of war between crooks and cops. Seen through the movie’s gutter’seye view of the world, everyone’s looking for a leg up on the other guy, a favor or some sort of insulation from jail (for the crooks) or bad work assignments (for the cops). Eddie Coyle is the common thread running among gun seller Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), bartender/hit man Dillon (Peter Boyle), federal agent Foley (Richard Jordan) and a group of robbers that’s striking suburban banks.
As Coyle secures handguns from Jackie for the bankrobbers, Dillon keeps tabs on Eddie’s travels and Foley fields tidbits of info from both men. These tips are cast out like fishing lines, hoping to return a nibble from Foley that might bring a desired favor. One such nibble comes after Eddie sees machine guns in Jackie’s car trunk and hears him say he has to get to the train station at Sharon. He gets there, but so do Foley and a half-dozen other agents.
Still, Eddie’s aid in Boston is not enough to get Coyle a break with a New Hampshire prosecutor, and you can feel the vice tighten around him. He’s faced with a no-win situation: do jail time or fink on guys who, unlike younger Jackie, are his contemporaries and cohorts. In its own low-key, Eddie-ish way, The Friends of Eddie Coyle works to a tragic ending that, hard to believe, makes a change in the story that actually improves upon Higgins’ plot.
Eddie Coyle is the first Boston movie with the guts to never be scenic (just look at the Quincy street Coyle lives on, with its row of drab, look-alike houses). It’s a grey, grey movie, because Eddie is stuck in a grey, grey world, lacking the resources to go to sunny Florida (as he laments) or the traction to climb out of his place on the crime ladder. Yates shot the movie in late 1972, with winter approaching, and you can feel the chill in the air. You often see the breath exhaled by characters during the conversations on the Boston Common or outside a Quincy Red Line station. The other locations are grungy spots Thomas Crown would certainly never be caught at, including Dillon’s bar (shot at the Kentucky Tavern at Mass. Ave. and Newbury Street), the cafeteria where Coyle and Jackie first meet (which appears to be on Boylston Street near Tremont), Boston Bowl and Dedham Plaza. A Weymouth bank, Memorial Drive, the old Boston Garden and even grim City Hall Plaza also serve the story very well. And rather than packing up back to Los Angeles for interiors, the production did everything here, even building sets, including the trailer belonging to robber Jimmy Scalise (hometown boy Alex Rocco), in Pier Five on the waterfront.
Apparently, Higgins did an uncredited polish on Paul Monash’s script. When I checked with the Higgins archives at the University of South Carolina to see if the late novelist’s papers contained any info on the movie’s locations, the staff’s perusal of his archival materials from that period turned up at least one reference in his letters to restoring dialogue from the novel to the screenplay. Thirty-five years after it was released to audience indifference, it’s hard to watch The Friends of Eddie Coyle now and not think that it—the most essential movie Hollywood has made in Boston—deserves the awards, acclaim and popularity bestowed upon Mystic River, a lesser movie in the same vein. Oh, well. That’s showbiz.
►Locations: Back Bay, North End, Beacon Hill, Boston; Quincy; Sharon; Milton; Weymouth; Dedham; Cambridge.
►Accents: Surprisingly good. Mitchum, originally eyed for Peter Boyle’s role, manages to use a convincing Boston accent without losing his own distinctive voice. So Eddie comes off as an emotionally spent Mitchum character, and a neighborhood guy, too. Boyle and Richard Jordan use a light touch with their accents, too. Considering the strong sense of place the locations give the movie, thick accents might have been overkill. These guys sound right at home next to Alex Rocco.
►Local color: “Numbah faw, Bobby Aw!” Eddie bellows from the Boston Garden balcony during a Bruins game featuring helmetless players and no ads on the ice or boards. Of course, Eddie and his “friends” would be into the big, bad Bruins (just as they’d be into the Pats today). The hockey sequence appears to have been shot during a real game, and that’s the kind of authenticity you get here. It’s not as if other movie productions were lining up to shoot at the Kentucky Tavern or fluorescent-lit cafeterias. The locations are so real I expected to see Eddie pop into a Zayre at some point, but no such luck.
►Aftermath: Higgins fan Elmore Leonard borrowed the androgynous name Jackie Brown for the heroine of his novel, Rum Punch. When Quentin Tarantino made a film of Leonard’s book, he renamed the story Jackie Brown, as did the movie tie-in re-release of the book.