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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Celebrating Robert Mitchum's centennial with The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Mitchum in his noir fedora
and trenchcoat from Out of
the Past
Once, when Bowling Green State U. film prof. Richard Edwards inquired on Twitter about our thoughts on which actors most embodied film noir, I didn't have to think before typing his name -- Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum had a unique blend of handsome elegance, a touch of menace, and a good helping of macho.  If he was your friend, you would be grateful to have him walk with you in a dark alley, a place seemingly familiar to him.  If an enemy, you'd be advised never to venture into any dark alleys with him nearby.  

Born on August 6, 1917, in Connecticut, he would have been 100 years old today.  While he passed away in 1997 at age 79, his film career lasted six decades plus.  His acting was easy, comfortable, and understated.  His face telegraphed world-weariness and intelligence, and his six foot frame was sturdy and imposing.  He played psychopathic killers in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear to such a degree that you'd never think you could look at that face again with anything but dread.  But then tune in Out of the Past, Crossfireor Holiday Affair, for example, and you'll be attracted to him all over again.  

I had the good fortune to watch one of his later films The Friends of Eddie Coyle, (1973) last night as  part of local art house's Mitchum celebration.  I attended with a group of classic film enthusiasts, and enjoyed a lively discussion afterward.  Directed by Peter Yates, an English-born director known for Breaking Away and Bullitt, it's based on the crime novel by George V. Higgins.   Set in and around the gritty Boston environs of the 1970s and filmed on location in the chilly late autumn months, it's a Boston I don't know, but some of my friends indicated they remembered some of the location settings. Mitchum plays a local gun runner trying to go straight, but being on parole facing more time, he tries to bargain with local cops to reduce his sentence by setting up some partners in crime who are involved in a bank-robbing outfit. I'm not going to review the film here, but rather provide what captured my attention and reflections.

Did Mitchum ever really age?  Of the classic actors I've seen at both early and later phases of their careers, so many lost their looks quickly--Alan Ladd, Tyrone Power come to mind--but Mitchum's handsome features are still attractive in his later years, rather like Cary Grant, who was also fortunate in this regard.  Considering Mitchum was apparently not scarce with the booze, cigarettes, and other substances, he was lucky.  Or perhaps, it's just that as a young man, world-weariness had already seeped in, and as an older one, it had simply settled.

Cops and robbers couldn't be distinguished.  So I always have trouble unraveling convoluted plots in crime stories, but I was shocked to learn halfway through the film that a group of men I thought were a rival gang of thugs were actually cops.  Never once did they don uniforms.  Perhaps this was the point, as there often can be a fine line, especially considering the tense relationships in 1970s Boston between authorities and citizens.

To illustrate this point, left is Richard Jordan playing top cop Dave Foley, and right is Steven Keats as petty criminal Jackie Brown. 

Inspired performances by the entire cast, including two near-forgotten actors.
Both Richard Jordan and Steven Keats are not well-known today, and both did not live past their 50s. Jordan died of cancer, and Keats was a victim of suicide.  Character actor Peter Boyle was the true villain of the piece, and his oiliness oozed from every scene, but for my dollar I plead guilty to not being able to shake the image of him as the monster in Young Frankenstein.  That's what you get when you have very distinctive looks and an iconically weird but unforgettable performance from a popular film.  
Peter Boyle as double-crossing bartender Dillon
Not all crime films have an excess of graphic violence or language.  
While all kinds of guns, showdowns between gangsters and criminals and cops and robbers, car chases, and bank robberies, litter this picture, not one gun goes off until practically halfway through.  And there are only two shootings resulting in death, and almost no blood.  Conditioned by Scorcese, Tarantino, and Coppola films in the post-studio-system crime genre, I was shocked by this.  Hitchcock would have approved of the suspense-building skill on display here, and the psychological violence subbing for the physical.  And in another surprise, the "f-word" was only uttered maybe three times throughout, with a minimum of other juicy utterances (OK, the 'n-word' was uttered twice, yikes).  It still jars me to see classic actors swearing, and considering what often strikes me as an expressionistically large amount of swearing in contemporary films, I rather approve of this.

Did I enjoy the film?  Well, yes.  It was bleak -- do not expect to feel better about the world at the end. (I did smile seeing the great Bobby Orr skating for the Bruins during a pivotal scene).  But to see Mitchum still dominating the screen nearly 30 years after his first triumphs, was a great pleasure.  

Roger Ebert summed up Mitchum in this film in his 1973 review:
 "...give him a character and the room to develop it, and what he does is wonderful. Eddie Coyle is made for him: a weary middle-aged man, but tough and proud; a man who has been hurt too often in life not to respect pain." 

Check it out on Filmstruck or on Criterion DVD or Blu-Ray.
Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle contemplates a bleak future with no friends 


  1. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a film my late father admired. It took me a couple of turns around the block to see why, but - my goodness - it is a dandy.

    1. I wasn't sure what to expect, as it's a later film than those I am usually drawn to, but I was pleasantly surprised (or maybe not so surprised). Either way, I'm glad to have seen it. From your comment, it sounds like it may deserve multiple viewings, perhaps with time between them?