Robert Mitchum plays the title character, an aging Boston gun dealer. Eddie has been around and seen it all, and when he speaks, it’s from deep, hard-earned experience. Mitchum was in his mid-fifties when he made Eddie Coyle, and his tired, basset hound face was never better used than in this role. It’s his last great performance.
Eddie is a guy who has done a bit of time in his day, and as the film opens, the possibility looms that the might have to again. He served as a driver in a heist up in New Hampshire that went wrong, and he is waiting to go to trial. The possibility of another jail term terrifies Eddie, but not for the reasons we would normally assume. He can’t afford to go away because he needs to provide for his family. He states, “I don’t want my wife to have to go on welfare.” This working class mindset is refreshing – Eddie Coyle is not a tycoon gangster: He’s more like someone who works in a factory or drives a cab.
Go back to the film’s title – The FRIENDS of Eddie Coyle. Three men drift in an out of Eddie’s orbit throughout the film, and they are all connected to his efforts to stay out of jail. There’s the undercover cop that Coyle is trying to cut a deal with (Richard Jordan), a gun dealer that he’s trying to buy from (Steven Keats), and Dillon (the great Peter Boyle), a mysterious bartender who seems to have irons in a lot of fires. Coyle is playing the three men off each other – The gun deal info is going back to the cop, and Dillon is also getting pumped for info. There is another level to all this, as well: Dillon is also talking to the cop, unbeknownst to Coyle. Were you to watch this film with the sound turned off, it would be a tall order to tell the good guys from the bad. I think that’s the way Yates wants it.
The cops’ real target is a gang of bank robbers who pull off a couple of jobs during the film. Their modus operandi is to kidnap the family of a bank official and use this to force the banker to let then into his vaults. The cop is plying Coyle for info on them, and Coyle is trying to help, despite having limited knowledge of the case. There’s a subtle little scene in a supermarket parking lot, where Coyle buys some handguns from the dealer, and accidentally sees something pretty interesting – a cache of machine guns in the guys’ trunk. This is something that Coyle can use with the cop, and sure enough, the gang is all arrested soon afterward. It’s not really clear how the connection has been made but we assume that Coyle’s info has played a part.
This is also the assumption of the robber’s bosses, and they decide to take action against the informer. The man that they hire to do the job is Coyle’s buddy Dillon, and it’s in the aftermath of this encounter that TFOEC really takes wing. Dillon gets off the phone from getting his assignment, turns to Eddie (who is in the bar) and suggests that the two of them have dinner and take in a hockey game.
The guy’s night out is freighted with hidden motives, of course. Dillon buys beers for Coyle to make the hit easier to carry out, but it’s hard not to think that he’s also actually enjoying a last night out with an old friend. As they watch the game, they cheer and yell like any other hockey fan, and there’s no question that the two men have a great affection for one another. When Dillon finally does finish the job, it’s anti-climatic. The film doesn’t linger over it, it just happens and that’s it. It’s just a shitty job that needs to be done.
The world that Eddie and his friends live in isn’t glamorous, or fun, or even very profitable. It’s a world where the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, and both groups freely cross over and back again. Dillon, for instance, is a longtime friend of Eddie’s but is ultimately the one who willingly destroys him. The definition of “friend” is pretty liquid to these people, and this is pointed out in spades at the films’ close, when Dillon reveals a heartbreaking twist to the story. Heartbreaking, but completely consistent for one of the friends of Eddie Coyle.