Like many of the friendships I have tenaciously attempted to endure over the years, the face of the contemporary American crime drama is often viewed from one of two sides: dark or darker. Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather was a tale that, while far from painting a bright and happy portrait of a life in organized crime, was nevertheless picturesque. In fact, both it and its more famously known cinematic adaptation – which followed three years after the book was initially published – would inevitably shape the very mold for such stories as time went on. And then there are far gloomier, yet still slightly idyllic tellings of the figures who go to make up the shadowy underworld all men fantasize about, but few dare to live in.
Well outside the boundaries of such legendary gangster paradises as New York and New Jersey, we find ourselves at the metropolis of Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that a then-Assistant United States Attorney by the name of George V. Higgins set and wrote his 1970 look at crime, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. A decidedly much more realistic view at not only the subject, but the workers who set the cogs into motion, Higgins’ story also wound up becoming a major motion picture, released in 1973 by Paramount Pictures. Peter Yates, the former racecar driver-turned-director who blew audiences away with Bullitt a few years before, directed from a script by writer/director Paul Monash.
Whereas in tales such as The Godfather we see the higher echelon of these lower elements of society, The Friends of Eddie Coyle focuses entirely on the sort of men we only hear about in passing during other crime dramas. These are the men who follow out the orders, but who have no contact whatsoever with the kings they loyally (and sometimes blindly) serve. Here, we bear witness to a criminal world sans any sort of identifiable hero whatsoever. Even the characters from the side of that which is (legally) good and just – the police, who work entirely undercover – are a far cry from the gallant Elliot Ness-type nemesis we sometimes see.
Our main character, the eponymous Eddie Coyle, aka “Fingers” – brought to effective life by a fairly subtle Robert Mitchum – is an aging driver/gunrunner for the local crime scene. Without so much as a bottom rung to cling to on this shady corporate ladder and a family who has learned to live without him (and who is only shown briefly at that), Eddie finds himself hanging out to dry at the beginning of the story; his knuckles having been smashed whilst serving a previous term in stir. Now, with another – potentially final – sentencing on the horizon thanks to a busted bootlegging, Eddie decides to play ball with Treasury Department prodigy Dave Foley (Richard Jordan, not The Kids in the Hall guy) in exchange for a little leniency.
Unable to turn “state’s” on Dillon (Peter Boyle), the man who sent him out on the last, fruitless mission, Eddie sets his new friend’s long arm with the thin blue line on a minor gunrunner named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats – not Pam Grier – making an incredible screen debut) who, if nothing else, has great taste in automobiles. Meanwhile, the guns Eddie is wheeling and dealing are going to a group of well-organized bank robbers (led by the great Alex Rocco and Joe Santos, who are about the only surviving cast members from the entire film, with even the movie’s younger stars having passed away in the ’90s along with Robert Mitchum), who have been pulling off a series of heists that Mr. Foley wouldn’t mind putting a stop to.
Previously released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in 2009, The Friends of Eddie Coyle have returned to remind us all of a certain well-worn adage ending with “…who needs enemies?” in a beautiful new MPEG-4 AVC encode in glorious 1080p High-Definition. Shot entirely on location in and around Boston, the minimalistic gritty tale uses a fair deal of natural and low lighting. As such, there is a bit of (faint) grain present in some scenes (this was back when we still used a magical thing known as “film” to film films, kiddies), but such moments do not detract from the viewing experience. In fact, they only add to it. Apart from the grain, this Criterion release is perhaps even crisper and cleaner than ever.
The color palette is deliberately muted, in contrast with the fact that this is a crime drama filmed in Massachusetts during what is clearly not the summer time (to say nothing of the fact that this was filmed in the early ’70s, when pastels were the new garish). And Criterion’s transfer looks stunningly beautiful all the way around – with the presentation’s own contrast balancing night and day, black and white, and even friends and enemies perfectly. It’s a cold world out there, and this transfer lets us know it. Accompanying the film is the original mono soundtrack, presented in an above-average Linear PCM offering that delivers the dialogue clearly while still giving Dave Grusin’s funky moody Moog-heavy soundtrack a chance to breathe. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are provided.
In terms of special features, this Criterion Blu-ray may come as a bit of a disappointment to some, for it contains the exact same extras present on the original 2009 Standard-Definition DVD. First up in an excellent audio commentary with the late Peter Yates (who died in 2011), who was proud to talk about this – one of his favorite works – and is very informative. Secondly (and lastly) on the disc is a stills gallery, with each photo preceded by a text letting us in on what was going on at the time the iris closed shut. The release also comes with a reprint of the 44-page illustrated booklet from the 2009 release, which features an essay on the film by Kent Jones entitled “They Were Expendable” as well as the disc’s technical credits.
The aforementioned booklet also features one very memorable recollection by the late Peter Boyle entitled “You Know What the 2001 Theme Is? That’s the Sound of Mitchum Waking Up”. And just one read of that will let you know how special The Friends of Eddie Coyle truly were.