Just how unimportant can a main character be, and still be the main character? It’s a subtext I find unavoidable as I approach Peter Yates’ the Friends of Eddie Coyle. At his core, Coyle is kind of a bum, neither steering the ship in his underworld lifestyle, nor making the scores. In any other story he’s one of those nameless, faceless men in the middle, whose job it is inevitably to help make sure more important people get what they need when they need it. He’s ‘Mobster no. 2’ in a half a hundred credit rolls. But this is a movie all about him; about the middle man, the go-between. A backstage pass to the life of a nobody hood.
“In the miserable economy of power in Boston’s rumpled gray underworld,” writes author and filmmaker Kent Jones in his essay They Were Expendable, “Eddie and his ‘friends’ are all expendable, and the ones left standing play every side against the middle, their white-knuckle terror carefully concealed under several layers of nonchalance and resignation.”
And then he dies. Of course he does, or I wouldn’t be writing this. He has to die. And it’s because Eddie Coyle is the character he is – and was played by the man that was Robert Mitchum – that he and his death became the first entry in this series.
“Eddie Coyle is a small-time loser at the end of his rope,” screenwriter Paul Monash tells Rolling Stone in the essay Robert Mitchum: The Last of the Celluloid Desperados, “but the marvelous thing about Mitchum is that he doesn’t play him as a groveling, uncourageous man. He imparts to the role a quiet dignity the character in the book lacked, I think. Mitchum radiates a genuine presence. Above all, you can say about Mitchum that he is.”
Coyle does something that few other characters like him do: he relates. Much like Rosemary in Rosemary’s baby does everything ‘right’ – calls the police, tries to escape, all the ‘what would I do’ steps that make her terror that much more believable – Coyle plays his problems down the line, and with a simplicity that feels refreshingly natural. With his court date upcoming on a truck-jacking charge, he tries to feed the cops just enough info to stay out of jail. He makes his moves only when forced, and his solutions seem to be the best available to him.
He’s a character without options and without the clichéd genre-born ability to gun his way out of trouble. He’s a man working whatever angle he can to stay out of prison. That makes his death something almost transcendent among a genre full of roles we mark down as body count or the wrong end of karmic justice. I don’t feel for him because he’s a simpering patsy like Fredo, or any number of wrong place, wrong time supporting cast members through the ages. Coyle earns empathy because he’s the reality.
This man is me if I ended up in a life of crime. Not running things at the top or robbing banks at the bottom. Just in the middle trying to make all the pieces fit, trying not to be stupid, trying not to get caught. When he dies as the result of the slow and unenviable unfolding of events that make me sure he will die, I know that I’d die too.
Coyle’s death comes from the mind of former Assistant United States Attorney George V. Higgins. A lawyer, journalist, and professor who published his first novel after years working to fight organized crime in and around Boston. It was a background that made him especially well suited to write stories that delved deep into the mob underworld. And his first book, the Friends of Eddie Coyle, was his most notable success. In 2012, Higgins’ third story, Cogan’s Trade, was adapted into the Brad Pitt vehicle, Killing them Softly. But, those are the only two of his 27 books to make it to the big screen.
And while Killing Them Softly underwent its fair share of re-writing and updating from its source material, the Friends of Eddie Coyle is very much a visual recreation of Higgins’ base text. Yates, Monash, Mitchum and the rest play important roles in bringing it to life, but often the most pivotal of those roles seems to have been to stay out of the author’s way. The dialogue-heavy book reads more like a screenplay from the outset, with descriptions, conversations, and entire scenes lifted part and parcel for the eventual film.
“The screenplay is very faithful to George Higgins’s novel,” recalls Monash, “which I consider a work of true brilliancy. My main task in writing the screenplay consisted of organizing the material already at hand. The dialogue in the book, which the critics praised so lavishly, is the dialogue in the film.”
In Higgins’ own words then, this is how Eddie Coyle died:
“When the Ford was alone on the road, Dillon brought the revolver up and held it an inch behind Coyle’s head, the muzzle pointing at the base of the skull behind the left ear. Dillon drew the hammer back. The first shot went in nicely. Dillon continued firing, double-action. The revolver clicked on a spent round at last. Coyle lay thrust up against the frame between the doors of the Ford. The speedometer read eighty-five.”
The film and the novel that inspired it are steeped in the culture of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, notorious for producing famed mafia member Whitey Bulger and a laundry list of violent criminal undertakings. To his credit – and perhaps somewhat foolishly – Robert Mitchum sought out local figures in this highly active mafia underworld to prepare for the part.
Mitchum met with -and brought onto the set of the film as various crew -notable mafioso Howie Winter and his Teamsters union. Winter was introduced to Mitchum by character actor Alex Rocco, once known as Alexander Petricone (aka ‘Bobo’) from his days as a Winter Hill mafia member. Word is that Mitchum wanted to meet Bulger himself, but was warned against it.
“He warns Peter Yates that I’m associating with known criminals,” Mitchum says of author George Higgins’ warnings against the actors new friends, “warns him that I’m going to get busted or tainted or something. Well, fuck, there’s hardly anyone you can talk to in Boston without — you know…”
Potentially owing to that kind of dedicated study – and perhaps more firmly to Higgins’ own experiences working against such figures – there are clear parallels between the characters in Friends of Eddie Coyle and the genuine mafia syndicates of the time. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr points out connections he recognized, in a 2011 editorial about the film:
“When a killer openly threatens to kill you, it concentrates one’s mind wonderfully, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson,” Carr explains, talking of his own interactions with the Bulger family. “And as I studied Whitey, it dawned on me just how much of Whitey’s career paralleled that of Eddie Coyle’s fictional killer, Dillon.”
As Carr notes: Bulger ran a bar under someone else’s name, he informed for the FBI, and he was a contract killer for the mob. All bold similarities to Higgins’ character both on paper and on screen.
“Re-reading the novel,” Carr continues, “I even thought I recognized the prototype for Eddie Coyle–a ham-and-egger named Billy O’Brien. He’d been in one of Whitey’s early bank-robbing gangs, got paroled, and was whacked shortly after being lugged by the State Police for a truck hijacking.”
O’Brien was in fact killed a year after Higgins’s book was published, the same year the feature film was released. Bulger himself didn’t quite rise to notoriety as a major underworld player until after the novel was written. And when Carr brought these specific similarities to Higgins, he dismissed them as direct sources for his work.
But, that only shows how ensconced in the real world the author’s novel was. Whether on screen or on paper, Coyle is the reflection of a time and place and people, every bit as much as he is the creative brainchild of an author, dedication of an actor, or management of a director.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released on June 26th, 1973, starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, and Steven Keats. It was directed by Peter Yates, notable for the Steve McQueen action thriller Bullitt and the Albert Finney drama the Dresser among more than two-dozen other projects.
While the film is startlingly faithful to the book, it differs slightly here and there. As the scene of Coyle’s death approaches, the killers – Dillon and a teenage youth – take him to a hockey game; Bruins vs. Blackhawks for the film, instead of Bruins vs. Rangers. There’s a little less dialogue between Dillon and his partner as they prepare for and carry out their hit. Nothing important, only small things. Most notably, the Dillon on film only fires one shot to kill Coyle, rather than the nine scripted.
I bring these minor changes up not to compare and contrast – as is too often the course when looking at a novel as it moves to the screen – but to emphasize just how married these two works of art really are. It’s harder to point out the ways the text and film are different than it is to point out all the ways in which they mirror one another. And as they mirror one another, they mirror the real world around them. They mirror people who live and die in organized crime.
On that note, this is the death of Eddie Coyle – a nobody hood, out among friends, meeting a swift and unavoidable end.