A Jazzy 1970's Flick Featuring Dave Grusin
Five years after Bullitt, the (1968) Steve McQueen film featuring chase scenes in muscle-cars careening over San Francisco hills, Peter Yates made a similar film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, (1973). Even more of a “guy-flick” than Bullitt, this later film takes place in a gritty, unrelentingly male world. Indeed, women are merely incidental, as the aproned housewife, sex-pot girlfriend or obsequious bank-teller: with the exception of one wanna-be bank robber, who has a slightly more robust character, women have few lines and even fewer scenes. Still, I was mesmerized by this film.
In and around Boston, during a cold, dry Autumn, Robert Mitchum, as sleepy and stunned as the leafless trees, hunkers through every bleak scenario with pained affability. He is Eddie Coyle, entrenched in a nefarious world of terrifying, rubbery-masked, bank robbers and underground gun-running, he wants to escape an imminent prison sentence and can do so only by turning snitch on his so called “friends”.
Rolling Stone called Mitchum “poetic” in this film, and it is an apt description, in terms of the timing he adopts for every gesture and facial expression, each word or movement. This is to Mitchum’s credit, and most certainly has something to do with the director, Peter Yates; because, the pace of the entire film is exquisite – the kind of thoughtful rhythm that cannot be found in Hollywood today. Even down to the film’s coloring - subdued and earthy, which is now out of the realm of duplication
Quentin Tarrantino, Pulp Fiction, (1994); Jackie Brown, (1997) surely loved this film: he has made an admirable stab at this same genre, with its inimitable pace. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Steven Keats is gun-runner, Jackie Brown, the obvious name-sake for Tarrantino’s tongue-in-cheek gangster film, (with an impressive cast) which he made over two decades later. Scenes from other Tarrantino-flicks will leap to mind for his loyal fans.
Yet, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not violent by today’s standards. However, it’s heavy arms and gun-hoisting theme may have been the precursor to more and more violence in the post, film-noir era. There are two fatal shots fired – both violent, but one shows a watered-down stain that is supposed to be blood, and the other shot is implied rather than seen.
Still, the film is more an art piece, but not in the sense of Tarrantino’s “aestheticization of violence”, which is an appalling euphemism. Yates used slow, rumbling cars that growl to life, then speed off - their monstrous, gas-devouring engines screeching to an impossibly heavy excelleration. And the continuous, cool, edgy jazz rifts by Dave Grusin, which deem this film, not just classic, but stylish. The music compliments Eric Seelig’s wardrobe-work: from brown, leather jackets of a slick, ultra-‘70’s texture; brown corduroys and brown parkas; open-collar, paisley shirts; to fitted blazers and Coyle’s ill-fitted everything. Something of an hypnotic yet thrilling milieu is established in this prosaic, beige and Autumn-toned panorama.
Dave Grusin Performed The Soundtrack to This Film.
While Mitchum’s Coyle implies with uncanny congruity the tortured feelings within, Steven Keats as Jackie Brown is the only emotive character in the story. An irascible, turtle-necked hoodlum, and quite justifiably paranoid, he erupts with holocausts of feeling that might come shooting through his dark eyes. He appears, by turns, a Danish warrior and a sharp-jowled rock star from some 1970’s band as, maybe, Aerosmith. Forever behind the wheel of his muscle-car, he prowls the under-populated towns or waits in thinly-veiled hiding for trouble to find him.
Many of these actors have faded from our film-viewing consciousness, with the exception of Mitchum, of course, and Peter Boyle, who plays bar-tender and arch-snitch, Dillon. There is Richard Jordan as Dave Foley, who works for the U.S. Treasury Department, casing for leads with a believable, but not showy, brand of fraternal hospitality. Jordan plays his part with the precision of an English stage-actor, utilizing the art of conversation, via a Boston-twang: his keen stealth, which defines the status-quo, covers an implicit brutality and deceit broiling just under the surface of the entire plot.
To call this film spiritually vapid would be to miss the artistry of its making and its message – a message which strikes to the bone of human suffering - of its acute, psychological strains. Religious undertones do have a subtle presence, if only in part because of religion’s desperate absence. The Church and the pope are mentioned, or referred to, three times, as when Coyle’s wife infers that, among all of his covert telephone calls, why doesn’t he “call the pope”. Or when Jackie Brown implies that a priest at St. Paul’s would probably buy a gun from him “to keep under his robe for protection.” Coyle wants to redeem himself, but the only option does not seem very holy.
This is an art film with a message about humanity - and a lesson that teaches how not to live one’s life.