Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle began its life in 1972 as a nasty little crime novel by George V. Higgins, a first-time novelist who at that time was Assistant U.S. Attorney for the state of Massachusetts. His debut made for quick and memorable reading (a mere 183 pages in its first edition, comprised almost entirely of dialogue), and immediately became something of a literary sensation. Eddie Coyle is a lifer in the Boston criminal underworld; not particularly successful or well-respected, but a reliable guy with "fingers in a lot of pies." His "friends" are a crooked local bartender/hitman, a gang of bank robbers, and an ice-cold gun-dealer with a flashy car. What these men do to make a living, and what they do to each other and themselves in the process, is frighteningly detailed in this powerful novel.

In 1973 The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released as a motion picture. Higgins himself helped to adapt the story; his brutal dialogue is kept intact, and is in fact elevated by the stellar ensemble cast (which includes character actors Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats and Alex Rocco). Benefiting from its faithfulness to the novel's language and its excellent casting, The Friends of Eddie Coyle succeeds brilliantly as a film. What makes it an unsung classic is the superbly muted charisma of legendary Hollywood heavy Robert Mitchum. Mitchum portrays Coyle as a compromised "everyman" of the criminal underworld, adding pathos and weariness to a character that could easily have come across as bullying. Now available on DVD as part of the highly-regarded Criterion Collection, this one is not to be missed.