With Friends Like These . . .

coyleposter

Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as long-time Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, opens in theaters this fall. I am excited to see the film not only because of Depp but also because I am a fan of the director, Scott Cooper, whose Out of the Furnace was one of my favorite movies of 2013. Two years ago, the real-life Bulger was convicted of 32 counts of racketeering and murder. He had been a fixture in Boston’s underworld from the 1970s to the 1990s, rising to power with the help of corrupt FBI agents. He provided the FBI with information about a rival crime family while he built up his own criminal empire. If the story sounds familiar, it was fictionalized in Martin Scorsese’s gangster saga The Departed in 2006.

MITCHUM AS EDDIE COYLE

‘EDDIE COYLE’ WAS RELEASED ON BLU-RAY LAST MONTH.

My favorite Boston crime saga, however, was released in 1973, when the real-life Bulger was just beginning his rise to power. The Friends of Eddie Coyle takes place on the fringes of Boston’s underworld, and director Peter Yates’s decision to shoot in a naturalistic style captures the gritty milieu of the Irish mob’s territory. Victor Kemper’s unglamorous depiction of Boston’s mean streets prefigures the documentary-like style he used for Dog Day Afternoon two years later. According to Kemper, the schedule was so tight on The Friends of Eddie Coyle that they seldom spent more than one day in one location. It was a challenge to shoot so quickly, but, he noted that the lack of finessing gave the film a spontaneity, adding to Yates’s realistic style.

MITCHUM WAS ORIGINALLY TAPPED FOR THE ROLE OF THE BARTENDER, WHICH WENT TO PETER BOYLE.

MITCHUM WAS ORIGINALLY TAPPED FOR THE ROLE OF THE BARTENDER, WHICH WENT TO PETER BOYLE.

I confess that the visual style and documentary flavor are not the reasons I like this film so much. The film stars Robert Mitchum, my favorite actor of all time, in the title role. Mitchum gives one of the best performances of his career as aging, small-time gunrunner Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, who is barely making ends meet as he works on the fringes of the underworld. His situation deteriorates when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.

The film was based on a novel by George V. Higgins, an assistant U.S. district attorney. The dialogue-driven book offered a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of common criminals, which Yates and screenwriter Paul Monash worked hard to accurately recreate on the big screen. Moody, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum knew all too well.

RM SIGNS AN AUTOGRAPH FOR A YOUNG FAN--OR, LIKELY FOR HER MOTHER!

RM SIGNS AN AUTOGRAPH FOR A YOUNG FAN–OR, LIKELY FOR HER MOTHER!

Mitchum appears for only a quarter of the movie, but the film’s reputation rests on his performance. He is ably supported by a cast of young character actors whose approach to their craft was more method than movie star. Mitchum—a personality actor with a distinct star image—holds his own against Richard Jordan, Peter Boyle, Joe Santos, and Jack Kehoe. Director Peter Yates understood Robert Mitchum’s star image and used it to construct the character of Eddie Coyle, set the tone of the film, and capture the social and cultural disillusionment of the early 1970s. Mitchum’s tough guy persona, enhanced by stories of his hard knocks life, had evolved through his roles in film noir. By the 1970s, that toughness was colored by cynicism and pessimism, and his world-weary persona seemed to sum up the younger generation’s disillusionment with an America that had brought us Vietnam, decaying inner cities, accelerating crime rates, and political corruption. To his credit Mitchum not only survived as a star in this grittier era of Hollywood filmmaking, he thrived there.

BEN AFFLECT PAID HOMMAGE TO 'EDDIE COYLE' BY SHOWING IT ON A TV IN THE BACKGROUND OF A SCENE.

BEN AFFLECK PAID HOMMAGE TO ‘EDDIE COYLE’ BY SHOWING IT ON A TV DURING A SCENE IN ‘THE TOWN.’

As it turns out, Whitey Bulger also figures into The Friends of Eddie Coyle, albeit indirectly. Mitchum—being Mitchum—supposedly hung out with members of Bulger’s crew. Claiming he was soaking up the atmosphere to play his character, the star went out drinking with his driver, a few Teamsters, and other locals. The Teamsters’ bar buddies included a few mob members who were part of the Winter Hill Gang with whom Bulger was connected. Supposedly, Mitchum grew so close to the “bad guys” that Higgins became concerned that he knew too much and might be targeted, or that there might be repercussions to the production.

ALEX ROCCO

ALEX ROCCO

In an even more bizarre twist, a character actor named Alex Rocco was cast in a secondary role in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Rocco is best known as gangster Moe Green in The Godfather, a memorable character because he is shot through the eye in the final sequence. Born Alexander Petricone, Jr., the actor began adulthood in Boston as a small-time hood in the Winter Hill Gang. As the story goes, over Labor Day weekend in 1961, he showed up at a party attended by members of various gangs. A rival gang member put the moves on Rocco’s girl, prompting retaliations that escalated into violence among Boston’s underworld element. Eventually, a mob war broke out among the city’s Irish and Italian gangs. During the height of the violence, Rocco fled Boston, lost weight, changed his name, and ended up in Hollywood.

Now, that would make an interesting movie—but no one would believe it.

6 Responses With Friends Like These . . .
Posted By Steve Burrus : May 25, 2015 3:51 pm

I recently saw Robert Mitchum in “The Winds of War” [a novel of Herman Wouk's]. I am trying to compare his acting performance in that to his in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”. I have always admired Mitchum’s subtle and under-stated acting mode.

Posted By John S : May 26, 2015 3:07 pm

FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is one of my favorite movies and a good example, for me, of how foreign directors tend to best capture a the daily rhythms of a country. Peter Yates also directed BREAKING AWAY, one of the best depictions of middle America. Other examples would be DEEP END, in which Poland’s Jerzy Skolimowski’s wonderfully captures seedy London, and Canadian Ted Ketchoff’s Australian pub crawl back to the womb, WAKE IN FRIGHT. … If anyone can think of others, pass ‘em on!

Posted By swac44 : May 26, 2015 4:25 pm

One of my favourite British directors is actually a native of Brazil, Alberto Cavalcanti, who made Went the Day Well? (my favourite “home front” film), part of Dead of Night and They Made Me a Fugitive. His reputation was such that he could be billed simply by his last name. He started in France in the 1920s, and went back to Brazil in the ’50s, but his contribution to UK filmmaking in the 1940s was substantial.

Posted By John S : May 26, 2015 4:45 pm

Good one! According to IMDB he directed the two best segments in DEAD OF NIGHT. THEY MADE … is in one of my queues. Occurs to me another good one is Bryan Forbes directing THE STEPFORD WIVES, which has a great sense of comfortable American suburban ennui.

Posted By george : May 26, 2015 8:31 pm

Not all British directors capture American reality. In the ’70s, I could tell when an American movie had a British director: all the men would be wearing hats, after hats went out of fashion. I assume these directors learned about the U.S. from watching old American movies. (Hello, Michael Winner and Guy Hamilton.)

Posted By Susan Doll : May 27, 2015 1:57 am

Re: Yates the British director. I think the style and feel of the film owes much to Victor Kemper’s cinematography. Kemper, an American d.p., had a great deal of input into the film’s overall look.

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