Coyle's Kind of Friend Nobody Needs

The Friends of Eddie Coyle at the Circle Theatre in Brookline

GEORGE V. HIGGINS, the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the State of Massachusetts. The novel draws on his experience with the professional hoodlums who parade through the Boston area courts. At eighteen they're in on breaking and entering, or driving a stolen vehicle. They wear blue jeans and Army jackets, they shrug at their public defenders, and they mumble on the witness stand. Almost any judge will give them a couple of years, suspended on parole. But a few years later they show up again on an armed robbery charge, or even for murder. They wear bright pants and polo shirts and get a few years in the house of correction.

A day spent in any district court is enough to get the feel of the depressing business that goes on, and the monotony of it. Most everyone in the courtroom, including the judge, wears a seen-it all expression on his face--he knows he's going to see it again.

In the novel, the prosecutor and public defender talk about one of the cases:

And in a year or so he'll be in again, here or someplace else, and I'll be talking to some other bastard, or maybe even you again, and we'll try another one and he'll go away again. Is there any end to this shit? Does anything ever change in this racket?" "Hey, boss," the prosecutor said, "don't take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come, old guys disappear. It changes every day."

The novel deals mostly with events which led to the arrest and trial, and the movie which has been made from it adheres closely to the original.


The world of Eddie Coyle and "friends" is a passionless and dead-end one, as stony faced as the sentencing they suffer. The stolen goods they traffic and the robberies they commit, help support their families, with perhaps even enough leftover for that "trip to Florida." But they never make enough to quit the game. Jail, finally, is the only real stake. The game breeds a grim desperation. "Life's hard, but it's harder when you're stupid," says gunseller Jackie Brown. Not being stupid means making the best deal.

EDDIE COYLE (Robert Mitchum) is a small figure in the underworld who wants to have a good time, but he makes too many deals to get it. To escape a charge of receiving stolen goods, he informs the police that Jackie Brown is selling machine guns, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of life. To get money to go to Florida, he buys handguns from Jackie and sells them to acquaintances who are robbing banks. The bank robbers get caught (the movie doesn't make it clear that it is one of their irlfriends who informs the police), they think Eddie set them up, and kill him. A meaningless death, but no more meaningless than an inevitable later death at the hands of his "friends," or police.

The novel combines a Daschiell Hammett-like style of describing criminal relationships, and Raymond Chandler's brand of hard-edged realism. The plot unfolds in layer after layer of bluntly detailed incidents. Each incident is as carefully regulated as a move in a chess game, for check and mate means pay-off, jail, or death.

But the violence is for the most part held tightly beneath the surface, used only when tough talk and threats don't do the job. Bonnie and Clyde wouldn't last long in such a world. Coyle explains to a wide-eyed Jackie Brown how he came to be nicknamed "Fingers".

"What made it worse was knowing what they were going to do to you, you know? There you are and they tell you very matter of fact that you made somebody mad, you made a big mistake and now there's somebody doing time for it, and it ain't anything personal you understand, but it just has to be done...So you stick out the hand and... they put your fingers in the drawer, and then one of them kicks it shut. Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard."

Coyle is not making a direct threat, and he's certainly not asking for sympathy--he may have felt enough of that for himself already. He's telling Jackie, a relative novice, that in this game the gun is always cocked behind your head.

THE MOVIE doesn't quite live up to the book. A lot of the commentary on Boston/Cambridge fixtures, like the Hari Krishna, the Jesus Freaks, the Phoenix hawkers, is left out--probably because the movie is aiming at a much bigger audience than its natural local one. But this is hardly problematic. What is more damaging is the fact that the characters' underworld lives are made up to be more attractive than they are. Coyle is given a pleasant, energetic wife and a pack of loving bouncy kids. A bank robber has only to stick his hand down his stewardess girlfriend's pants to have her "come off like electricity." But he'd just as soon be pulling a bank job as sitting home listening to her talk.

But these lapses are insignificant next to Peter Yates' overall handling of the mise en scene. He uses the Boston setting with a realistic understatement that subtly characterizes the life of its underworld. The camera follows the actors to alienate them in Boston City Plaza, or attune them to the low-life sleaziness inside Hayes Bickford; and at a Bruins game, Dillon, the man who murders Coyle, says to Eddie, "there's fifteen thousand people rooting for the Bruins out there, and nobody gives a fuck about us."

Mitchum's performance is excellent. Although he is built too powerfully for the role of hapless Eddie (can the man help it if he's got shoulders which must be the envy of any professional football player?), he plays the part with an admirable neglect of movie star ego--implying that his talents have been neglected over the years. Unknowns Richard Jordan as Foley, the undercover policeman, and Steven Keats as Jackie Brown, the wise-guy kid, are also very good.

THE FRIENDS of Eddie Coyle belongs to the genre of underworld dramas like The Godfather and The French Connection, but it goes a step beyond them. In the other two films, the cops and robbers are clearly separated. One roots for the cops or the robbers according to which side is the most romantic, or daring, or righteous. And there is a certain amount of cheating involved when one is asked to care for false heroes. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there are no heroes, just as there is no clear separation between cops and robbers--they speak the same language, dress the same, and they use the same weapons of crime and law.

The bank robbers have broken into a house and are waiting for the bank president to come downstairs for breakfast. They hear voices: "Mummy and Daddy coming down together," says a robber. At this moment, Foley and about five other cops rush into the room pointing shotguns. Foley smiles, "April Fool motherfuckers." It's funny, but it's like laughing on a roller coaster that has gone out of control.

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