“Eddie Coyle” Deserved Better “Friends”

Original Theatrical Trailer
Dig Dave Grusin’s score, heard fleetingly here.

As has been detailed, in earlier El Cine posts related to my experiences working in a movie theater the summers of 1972-73, I learned much about how films were made, distributed and marketed.  I also learned how movies could be improperly marketed or bomb only to be reissued as sleepers or cult items.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle comes in second behind The Asphalt Jungle (1950) as my favorite Gangster Films.

In the case of Jungle it was the quintessential heist where everything goes awry whereas Friends looks at low level bank robbers and weapons dealing in Boston. Sharply written and based on Mass native George V. Higgin’s best seller (screenplay penned by producer Paul Monash) chronicles the last days in the life of Eddie Coyle, portrayed by the perfect Robert Mitchum.

Paramount Pictures dumped the film, sans reviews or advance publicity other than the trailer, and was not too surprised that it bombed at the box office. Like next year’s, The Parallax View, both film would share one common fateful trait; they were too dark for audiences in the paranoia-fueled 1970s.

The Film:

Coyle was dealing guns to bank robbers, headed by (Scalise) Alex Rocco, who were kidnapping bank branch managers and holding their families hostage while they emptied the vaults. It was lucrative until a foolish assistant manager is killed after setting off the silent alarm system. Coyle has bigger problems, he is a career criminal and up for sentencing in New Hampshire where he could do serious jail time. With an undercover cop essayed properly duplicitous by Richard Jordan (Foley), Eddie is ready to turn stoolie.

The film has plenty of colorful characters talking like real criminals, everyone says god damn or fuck often (much like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, 1973) and the violence, while muted by standards of the day, is not gratuitous. The script and acting carry Peter Yate’s somber tale. with character actor Peter Boyle (Dillon) doing a nice paradoxical turn as a bartender, who doubles as contract killer and police informer to Foley. Steven Keats (Jackie Brown) has choice dialogue as a young gun runner who deals with Coyle and later some revolutionaries.

Dave Grusin composes an eerie score that compliments the film with a hybrid of jazz and suspenseful instrumentals. The soundtrack is never bombastic, like it would have been scored today, and even during the bank robberies is ambient like soft breathing. Victor J. Kemper’s cinematography is simple and almost like his docu-style for the Robert Redford starrer, The Candidate (1972), which I plan a retrospective of as the presidential election nears. Patricia Jaffe edits tightly; there are no extraneous scenes or subplots beyond the necessary ones.

As the assistant manager of the Bama Theater in Tuscaloosa, I over saw the bookings and handled the press kits and advertising slicks. The trailer popped up a week before we received the film cans on the usual Thursday night, but with no idea what the ABC Theater Chain was delievering. The cans said “Coyle” and as it being near midnight there was no way to get newspaper ads or radio spots in play, so it opened cold.

The first showing had six people, and three of them walked out midpoint. The second showing had no audience. With a marquee promoting a Robert Mitchum film one would think there would have been slight interest. Try none. The 7 and 9 o’clock features had less than a dozen patrons in a theater that could seat over 1,000. Being the assistant manager, with a manager who like to play poker on Friday nights, I put the box office girl, June in charge and settled in for the 7 p.m. unspooling.

I was immediately knocked over by the verisimilitude. These were not funny or inept criminals; they were ruthless in their trade, but otherwise led normal lives with families and unaware friends. The friends of the title are detailed through their actions and Mitchum carries the movie with much assistance from his supporting cast.

One leaves the cinema having gotten dirty with the cops and cons; we see Foley’s boss is an asshole and that deals made with criminals are only has good as the next one. Since the film is populated almost exclusively by cops and cons their points of view and lifestyles are laid bare to us.

The novel was written by Higgins, a former assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth, lawyer, newspaper columnist and writer for the Boston Globe and AP. The downbeat but believable climax is no doubt drawn from experience; in truly Draconian subtext, Dillon tips off Foley of a bank robbery before Coyle can do likewise, but in this world, “friends” are not who they appear and the bartender allows Coyle to take the fall.

A signature scene follows Coyle relating how he had his fingers and knuckles crushed in a drawer for causing someone to serve jail time on traceable guns. “Hurts like a bastard,” he says, as he tries to extol onto Brown that the guns better be on time, otherwise “neither one of us will be able to shake hands.”

Eddie was unceremoniously yanked from the Bama on Monday after taking in less than $1,000 in receipts. That tab should fall at Paramount’s marketing department. The film deserved better Friends, at least the criminals in the film had an excuse for their actions.

The following scene contains profanity:

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