Folks such as myself, who have devoted themselves to the study of cinema, have a particular era of filmmaking that appeals most to them. Some love the silent period for its purity of visuals over dialogue. Others prefer the time of the studio system, when Hollywood churned out massive, Cinemascope epics such as Ben Hur, Giant, and Bridge on the River Kwai.
Personally, I have always been obsessed with the “New Hollywood” of the mid-sixties to the late 1970s. It was a time when the industry, desperate to cash in on the burgeoning youth market of the counterculture, took chances on the material it generated and the directors and actors it allowed to create it.
The result was some of the greatest films in American cinema history. Easy Rider. The Godfather. Taxi Driver. The Deer Hunter…
Another reason why I love that period so dearly is because it saw the genesis of one of the most American of film genres: the modern, neo-noir gangster film. Encompassing many of my favorite films including the 1971 Best Picture, The French Connection, this group of gritty, cop-versus-bad-guy flicks also happened to have more than one terrific car movie in it.
For this month’s installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I thought we’d travel back in time nearly fifty years and have a look at one such film, 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. So away we go!
The Friends of Eddie Coyle was produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Originally a 1970 best-selling novel by George V. Higgins, who was a career Assistant United States Attorney at the time he wrote it, the material was adapted into a screenplay by seasoned television writer, Paul Monash. Director Peter Yates, of Bullitt fame, was given the task of bringing the story to the big screen.
Iconic movie star Robert Mitchum assumed the eponymous title role and was supported by heavyweight character actors, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, James Tolkan, Alex Rocco, Steven Keats, and Jack Kehoe.
The movie, unsurprisingly, focuses on Eddie Coyle, a low-level Massachusetts crook and gunrunner. Middle-aged and facing a long prison sentence for a botched truck-jacking of a load of Canadian whiskey, Coyle has turned snitch in order to get his sentence expunged. He routinely meets in secret with ATF agent Foley (Richard Jordan) and provides him with tips on upcoming heists and robberies that he has foreknowledge of.
While doing this, his own illegal activities continue unabated, as he works with crooked bar owner and mobster, Dillon (Peter Boyle), to routinely supply guns to a gang of bank robbers. Since this crew is heavily mob-connected, he cannot give them up to Foley for fear of being hit for the transgression, so instead, he plans to set up a business acquaintance, independent gunrunner, Jackie (Steven Keats), who is seeking to purchase military surplus M16 rifles for a Weathermen-style homegrown terrorist group.
Foley and his agents nab Jackie, but Foley tells Eddie that this is not enough to secure himself a cleared sentence. To do so, Eddie must provide Foley with another big arrest.
Eddie ruminates over his options but comes to realize that he is left with no choice but to snitch on the mob bank robbers, lest he go to prison for decades. Eddie meets with Foley and spills the beans on the bank crew, but at the same time, Dillon gets wind of the fact that Eddie may be a snitch. Eddie’s life hangs in the balance as his “friends” attempt to discover the truth, and if necessary, mete out mob justice to Eddie for breaking the gangster’s code.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an archetypical noir film of the period, as it contains all the classic hallmarks of the genre.
Concerning the mise en scène, hand-held cameras were used extensively, as were long lenses, which offer vérité and a flattened look to the characters and scenery. What’s more, earth tones predominate the cinematography, which, combined with many scenes containing wet, post-shower streets, offer a gritty, run down look to the urban setting.
The casting is also straight out of the neo-noir playbook. Offbeat, far-less-than-pretty faces crowd the frame, offering realism to the roles of thugs and lowlifes they depict. The dialogue that the characters utter, and the machinations they commit, are minimalist, as in other films of the genre. What results is most assuredly a slow burn, though one that offers a steady boil throughout the film’s tense runtime.
Classic 1970s gangster film themes are explored, such as the mobster ethics code, and the issues associated with crime, punishment, and redemption. Added to that is a decidedly non-happy ending for most of the film’s antiheroes that satisfies, but would never pass muster in today’s Hollywood outside of the occasional Quentin Tarantino film.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle exhibits 1970s New Hollywood excellence in every facet of filmmaking. The performances, storytelling, pacing, and tone are all spot-on. Even the set decoration and wardrobing perfectly capture the world of these criminal protagonists. Yates clearly had exacting ideas on how to portray this milieu, and it must be said, executed them perfectly.
Lucky for us, the film also presents a smattering of extremely cool cars and a couple of brief but satisfying scenes of automotive action.
The primo car in the movie is Jackie’s ride, and it’s a personal favorite of mine: a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner. The car is a 383 big-block which, hilariously, is referred to as a “383 Hemi” by Jackie in dialogue. This faux pas could have been intentional, depicting Jackie as someone desperate to impress others. More likely though, I believe it was not intended, and that screenwriter Paul Monash should have done some more research about Chrysler Corporation powerplants.
Nonetheless, the car looks awesome with its “Fuselage” styling draped in the High-Impact Curious Yellow paint that Ma Chrysler bequeathed it. The exterior of the car features a black vinyl roof, Rallye wheels, and those awesome Roadrunner hood callouts. It, unfortunately, lacks the super-cool B-pillar stripes that Roadrunners often wore though owing to that vinyl roof.
Inside, the car has the typically spartan Roadrunner black vinyl interior, a bench seat, and a column shifter for the three-speed TorqueFlite tranny.
Jackie puts the spurs to the car in a great chase sequence in a parking lot with Foley’s agents who ultimately block Jackie in and arrest him.
Foley is briefly seen driving another mean muscle car, a 1969 Chevy Camaro SS 396. The car is Dusk Blue, a dark midnight hue, and has a rare white vinyl roof and aftermarket Cragar-style wheels. In dialogue, he explains to Eddie that the car was seized from a drug courier who he recently busted.
Other cool cars in the film include a gorgeous, gold 1972 Mercedes-Benz 280SE 4.5, a 1973 Chevrolet Impala, and a 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVille.
Not unlike Bullitt, The French Connection and other notable neo-noir crime films of the era such as The Seven-Ups and Dog Day Afternoon, The Friends of Eddie Coyle delivers a dark, brutal, and unflinching look at the seedier elements of society.
With masterful direction by one of the leading filmmakers of the genre, superb, minimalist screenwriting, and fabulous performances across the board, the film delivers a powerful cinematic experience. It’s no small wonder that it has been singled out as a favorite by many contemporary directors. It’s clear that The Friends of Eddie Coyle has had a profound influence on latter-day crime epics such as Heat and Drive.
Add to this marvelous craftsmanship a handful of extremely cool cars, and you have one of the best movies I’ve reviewed on these digital pages in quite a while.
I give The Friends of Eddie Coyle seven-and-a-half out of ten pistons, and suggest you rent it on your favorite streaming service right away.
Until next time, my friends in muscle…