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The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle(1973)

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teaser The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

"Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard."

Short listed by Peter Yates as one of his three favorite films (alongside the Academy Award® nominated Breaking Away [1979] and The Dresser [1983]), the Boston-set The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) proved a worthy follow-up to the British filmmaker's breakthrough film, Robbery (a thinly-veiled 1967 account of 1963's "Great Train Robbery"), his American debut, Bullitt (1968) with Steve McQueen, and the good natured Manhattan caper comedy The Hot Rock (1972). Born in Aldershot, Hampshire in July 1929, trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a racing enthusiast before his industry apprenticeship as an editor of documentaries, Yates had by the early 1970s earned a reputation as a solid helmer of action films. A decade earlier, he had assisted Tony Richardson on the sets of the seminal British "kitchen sink realism" dramas The Entertainer (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961) and with Richardson's recommendation had become a theatre director in his own right. Yates' particular knack for teasing gritty reality out of high octane/big setpiece scenarios served him well when Paramount Pictures senior executive Peter Bart offered him the job of bringing George V. Higgins crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle to the big screen in the late autumn of 1972.

Published that January by Alfred A. Knopf, the dialogue-heavy novel marked the publishing debut of Higgins, then an assistant district attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Higgins' exposure to real life recidivists allowed him to capture with persuasive fidelity tight lipped regional criminalspeak and reveal the humanity of his characters through their flawed syntax and pre-David Mamet reliance on repetition. Born in 1939, Higgins majored in English at Boston College and earned a bachelor's degree at Stanford University before early jobs in advertising and as a rewrite man for The Associated Press. He returned to Boston mid-decade and earned a law degree in 1967. During this time, Higgins wrote a succession of crime novels set in and around Boston, which Life had dubbed "the murder capital of America." The novels failed to sell and Higgins' agent dropped him as a client after reading an early draft of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins wrote twenty-five more novels in his lifetime but shied away from the label of crime writer, preferring to be thought of as more of a Charles Dickens than a Raymond Chandler and no doubt relishing the literary nickname "the Baudelaire of Boston."

Despite the cinematic possibilities of the book's dialogue (and over the protests of Yates himself), Higgins was denied the opportunity to adapt The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Producer Paul Monash, who had purchased the rights to the novel for Paramount, himself assumed the responsibility of writing the shooting script. Born in Harlem in 1917, the son of Rhoda Melrose, a silent film actress who worked with both Vitagraph and Biograph studios, Monash had aspirations of becoming a novelist but first enjoyed great success in live television in the 1950s. Monash wrote and produced the pilot episode for The Untouchables and had a hand in creating the prime time soap opera Peyton Place (1964-1969), also adapted from a successful novel. As a producer, Monash had an unqualified box office hit with George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and he later scripted Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) and Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot (1979), both of which were bestselling novels by horror writer Stephen King. Adding verisimilitude to the production were the on-set contributions of an official FBI spokesman, as well as an unnamed "technical advisor" able to attest to the accuracy of the depiction of Boston's criminal element, presumably from personal experience.

Robert Mitchum came to play Eddie Coyle on the heels of unsatisfying turns in the forgettable Going Home (1971) and The Wrath of God (1972), which found him riffing yet again on his The Night of the Hunter (1955) infamy. Uninterested in working for more than three weeks, Mitchum agreed initially to take the lesser role of Dillon, the police informant eventually played by Peter Boyle. When Yates asked if the venerated movie tough guy might consider the pivotal role of Eddie (and then offered to cut the part down so that his scenes could be fit within a three-week time frame), Mitchum agreed. With Yates' crew working quickly, rarely spending more than a day in one location, Mitchum nailed his scenes in single takes; when he muffed a line, Yates printed it anyway. The rumpled perfection of Mitchum's interpretation of Eddie Coyle gave the film a documentary-like rawness magnified by Yates' use of existing locations. Mitchum had done his own brand of field research by frequenting the local watering holes with his Boston driver and various Teamsters hired as crew. The actor got himself in so tightly with members of Boston's notorious Bunker Hill gang that Higgins expressed concerns to Yates for his safety and the possible repercussions on the production.

Filling out the ranks of the "friends" of Eddie Coyle, alongside veteran actors Peter Boyle, Mitchell Ryan and Alex Rocco, were relative newcomers Steven Keats and Richard Jordan. A graduate of the New York School of Performing Arts and a Vietnam veteran, Keats attended Montclair State College, where his acting caught the attention of drama scouts from Yale University. Peter Yates chose The Friends of Eddie Coyle to mark Keats' film debut because of the actor's resemblance to rock star Mick Jagger. Keats enjoyed a variety of prominent parts through the decade in Death Wish (1974) with Charles Bronson, The Gambler (1974) with James Caan, in the Oscar® nominated Hester Street (1975) with Carol Kane and as Robert Shaw's doomed CIA partner in Black Sunday (1977) - but roles grew less interesting in the 1980s and he died by his own hand in May 1994. A descendant of renowned New York jurist Learned Hand, Richard Jordan followed his forebear to Harvard University and made his Broadway debut in 1961. Jordan toiled extensively in New York theatre, appeared on such weekly series as The Defenders and Naked City, and made his film debut in 1971. In 1987, Jordan and Robert Mitchum subbed for an ailing Edward Woodward on two episodes of the hit series The Equalizer. Ironically, Woodward (who passed away in November of this year) survived both of his replacements. Jordan succumbed to a brain tumor in 1994 and Mitchum from lung cancer in 1997, a month shy of his 80th birthday.

Producer: Paul Monash
Director: Peter Yates
Screenplay: Paul Monash; George V. Higgins (novel)
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Art Direction: Gene Callahan
Music: Dave Grusin
Film Editing: Patricia Lewis Jaffe
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle), Peter Boyle (Dillon), Richard Jordan (Dave Foley), Steven Keats (Jackie Brown), Alex Rocco (Jimmy Scalise), Joe Santos (Artie Van), Mitchell Ryan (Waters), Peter MacLean (Mr. Partridge), Kevin O'Morrison (Bank manager #2), Marvin Lichterman (Vernon), Carolyn Pickman (Nancy).
C-99m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server
Robert Mitchum: A Biography by George Eells
Robert Mitchum interview by Dick Lochte, Mitchum, In His Own Words by Jerry Roberts
Peter Yates director's commentary, The Friends of Eddie Coyle DVD (The Criterion Collection)
Introduction to The Friends of Eddie Coyle by Elmore Leonard (John Macrae Books)
"George Higgins: The Teller of Boston's Stories"
Peter Yates biography, World Film Directors, Volume 2 1945-1985, edited by John Wakeham
Obituary for Paul Monash, Variety, January 2003
Obituary for Steven Keats, The New York Times, May 1994

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