By Richard von Busack
Few stories of the underworld beat 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle as an illustration of bank robber Willie Sutton’s saying, “Crime pays, but it don’t pay much.” Robert Mitchum is the Coyle of the title: A harmless, unlucky wiseguy with a handful of broken fingers that he got from having made an unforgivable mistake. Unready to leave his family and go back to jail on a mandatory sentence for driving a truckload of stolen merchandise, Coyle tries to pull strings with a T-man (Richard Jordan) he knows. “Being nice to Uncle” is the way the lawman puts it, but Coyle understands the deal in a different way: “You want me to be a permanent goddam fink.” Coyle never realizes that one of his pals (Peter Boyle), set up in business as a bartender by the Irish mob, sees a bigger picture, and has far more to sell.
Director Peter Yates’ backdrops of the working-class outskirts of Boston during the shabbiest part of the 1970s are unparalleled. The author of the source novel, George V. Higgins, was both a government and a defense attorney. The authority of his story never fails: The organized criminals have some resources, but they’re kept in fear by the far better organized cops.
Outside one brick store, Coyle carries out some paper bags of groceries to mask a stolen gun sale, and also to pick up some stuff for the house. The smaller-than-life side of professional crime is ably set up by Mitchum, first seen in the reflection of a steamy cafeteria window. As he lines up to get his chow, it’s as if he’s in the joint already.
If the movie has atmosphere that you couldn’t recreate for a $100 million, it’s Mitchum’s ruefulness and bone-deep integrity that makes this tragedy of a lower-middle level criminal utterly believable.