We told it to you a month ago, and we’ll tell you again: Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is one of the best Boston-set films of the decade, and we’ll fight you if you disagree (not really). Seriously, we’re so excited for you to see this movie on Friday, and we hope you love it as much as we do.
With Free Fire in the news, it’s also as good a time as any to revisit this classic: Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a 1973 release starring Robert Mitchum that’s pretty much a foundational text when it comes to Boston-set crime film.
It’s set five years before Free Fire’s characters meet up for their warehouse showdown, and shares a bit in common with that film (both movies are all about gun deals), but has a deadly serious tone and an icy, bitter heart at its core. Eddie Coyle’s one of the best crime films of its era, and an excellent counterpoint to so much of modern Boston cinema.
Based on former Brookline resident George V. Higgins’ novel (his third book, Cogan’s Trade, published a year after this film’s release, would later be adapted into the massively underrated Killing Them Softly by Andrew Dominik), The Friends of Eddie Coyle tells the story of Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (Mitchum), a small time gunrunner who’s in some serious shit: After a botched job for bartender and hood Dillon (Peter Boyle), Eddie’s facing a trip back to the joint. He’s got a wife, some kids and a shitty day job as a driver for a bakery, and he’s sick of his lot in life and terrified to go back to prison.
Seeking any means necessary to get out of his situation, he hears an offer from a local ATF agent (Richard Jordan) to rat out some of his associates, the “friends” mentioned in the title: A gang of bank robbers he sold guns to, and a fellow gunrunner (Steven Keats). The rest of the movie’s about his moral dilemma, and how the choices he makes affects the people around him and, ultimately, Eddie himself.
Let’s get the usual superlatives about the cast out of the way first: The whole cast feels of the city, not like they were brought to it by a casting company. Mitchum is, per usual, incredible in the role, his trademark coolness and occasional otherworldliness lost in the miasma of the grimy reality of poorly lit cafeteria lamps and the cold landscape. He’s just a regular desperate guy, and he sells it wonderfully. This movie would lead him to a string of neo-noir roles over the course of the ’70s, including two stints as Philip Marlowe in a series of Chandler remakes near the end of the decade (he remains the only actor to have portrayed that character twice on screen).
Peter Boyle is chilly and creepy as Dillon, who’s just one of the great untrustworthy scumbags to ever appear on the silver screen. Boyle’s given some of the film’s best dialogue, including a rant right at the end of the movie, fresh off of committing a murder, about a New York man’s obsession with killing pigeons. Boyle, as well, would go on to star in another Boston-based crime film that decade, albeit a much lighter one: William Friedkin’s heist comedy The Brink’s Job, which hit screens in 1978.
There’s not a great amount of actual action in this film, as much of it is cerebral cat-and-mouse stuff, but fear not: Eddie Coyle’s heist scenes are a thing of absolute beauty. In significantly fewer minutes, they manage to rival Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge in terms of quiet tension and heavily-planned deliberation, and the first successful robbery might be one of the greatest knock-overs in cinema history. Perhaps it’s because how Yates paces the whole thing: We get much of the robbery in real time, and that slowness helps the imagery become trance-like. Perhaps it’s because of the deadly silence throughout, the stillness taking the already-established focus and enhancing it to the point that microscopic details become readily apparent: The sweat on the bank manager’s forehead, the lines of Alex Rocco’s face obscured by his clear Clark Gable mask, the flat colors of the bank. From home invasion to safe-crack, it takes a good 10 minutes for the soundtrack to return and dissolve the atmosphere, and no other Boston film is as exhilarating.
Of course, the other heists are meant to show how badly shit can get: A bank employee is murdered for pressing the silent alarm at the next, and the third one can’t even get off the ground because Boyle’s character has ratted them out; but the first one does the solid groundwork for the audience and respects their intelligence as well (there’s no shouts of “that’s not according to plan!” coming from any of the characters in this movie).
It’s wonderful to see how beautifully unadorned of modern cliche (both narrative and setting-wise) this film is, and it’s astonishing how fresh it feels given the recent crop of Boston-based crime pictures. The accents are subtle (like Mitchum’s), or not even there at all, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any of these characters in this movie. The city itself hadn’t become a spectacle yet, and unassuming shots of the Common and City Hall feel truly surprising, as the swooping helicopter shots of the Custom House Tower didn’t arrive until James Spader and Bill Shatner decided to open a legal practice. There are no Dropkicks, though there are Irish characters, and the sequence where Boyle and Mitchum go to a Bruins game (featuring Bobby Orr!) feels more organic than, say, having your final heist sequence set in the underbelly of Fenway Park.
To be totally frank, while a lot of those films and TV shows help to sell our city to the world, it’s really nice to have one or two movies (Free Fire being the other) that just feel like they’re for us, and not just for the tourism board.
‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ is available for rental from your preferred streaming service, but we’d recommend you check out the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of the film. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.