Selling out is never as easy as you’re led to believe.
Seriously. If you decided right now, as you’re sitting there reading this review on this website, that you were going to sell out all of your ideals and totally roll over on everything that’s important to you and you were willing to trade it all in for easy cash and decadence… who the hell would you offer to sell out to?
Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum in another in a long line of amazing, nuanced, seemingly effortless performances) is a mid-level scumbag. He’s not a killer. He’s not a bad guy. He’s not someone the police typically would hassle for doing his thing. But he’s a bit of a screw-up, and he’s facing some time for being in the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong job. He finds himself pressed to roll over on people, and the really sad and painful thing about the film is the way Eddie gets played, the way no matter what he does, the screws keep getting tighter. And tighter.
Mitchum captures perfectly that sinking feeling, that no matter what Eddie does, it’s not going to change what’s happening. He knows the fix is in. The ship has sailed. He’s going down, no matter what, unless there’s a miracle, and in the experience of Eddie Coyle, miracles seem real hard to come by.
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There’s more to it than that, of course. There’s a parallel plot about a series of robberies that’s very tense, very well-directed, a series of heists that aren’t about the gee-whiz factor, but more about the dry fear of violent men willing to do anything to get what they’ve come to get. Peter Yates directs with a compassionate but urgent precision, and I think it’s his best movie overall. “Bullitt” is far more iconic, due in large part to this film’s unavailability on video for many years, but I hope people check it out now that Criterion finally got all the red tape cleared away. And it’s a striking transfer of this film’s rich ’70s color and film stock in the hands of the great Victor J. Kemper. I’ll cop to being a real fetishist for a film that has that particular look, like you can almost tell that the stock it was shot on was purchased sometime between 1970 and 1975. And if you don’t know Kemper’s work by his name, trust me, you know his work. “The Hospital.” “The Candidate.” “Dog Day Afternoon.” “Slap Shot.” “The Jerk.” “… And Justice For All.” “Xanadu,” fer pete’s sake. And as much as he’s one of the architects of the way I think of the ’70s on film, I’d say that “”Xanadu” is one of the first pure ’80s movies, and he defined studio comedy for the ’80s with his work on films like “Mr. Mom,” “Vacation,” and “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” Criterion’s really been killing it lately, with some impressive work on titles like this and “In The Realm Of The Senses” (I’ll review the BluRay soon) and “Benjamin Button,” and they do Kemper’s work proud here.
The supporting cast in the film is unusually strong, with guys like Peter Boyle (who was as ubiquitous as that film stock during the ’70s, it seems) and Richard Jordan and Joe “Rockford Files” Santos and Alex Rocco and James Tolkan and Steven Keats as (brace yourself) “Jackie Brown”. And at the heart of it, Mitchum, a center of gravity that the whole film leans into. There’s a moment in the film where he realizes he’s just been totally hosed, and the way he sells it is what makes me sure that Mitchum’s one of the very best of the classic movie stars, or at least one of my absolute favorites. I love that he’s the definition of tough, but he was never afraid to go out on a limb or try something or tweak his own persona. He seemed well aware of his own iconic power, and he could turn it down, make it human-scale, which not all movie stars can do. The reason he’s great here isn’t because he blows everyone else away… it’s because he’s the glue at the heart of this really strong and interesting ensemble, this orbit of desperate men. If you’re a fan of this film, or if you’re a fan of ’70s crime movies who hasn’t seen this and you’re willing to just trust me because I am absolutely right about this one…. pick up “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle” immediately. It’s one of the best discs I’ve purchased this year.
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