[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
The French Connection was about as good as a movie can get without reflecting the creative concentration of a single controlling artistic presence. Ernest Tidyman’s script evoked a convincing sense of a behavioral reality realized and sustained in pungent language that sounded as if it were spoken by people, not characters in a screenplay; William Friedkin’s direction paced that reality perfectly and extended it in patterns of action and movement; Owen Roizman’s camerawork achieved precision while staying limber and unaffectedly nervous, and Jerry Greenberg’s editing wired the whole thing into a dynamic narrative experience. One tended to accept producer Phil d’Antoni’s claims that it was his film: at no point did the picture flag, owing to the expert collaboration of a committee of accomplished artisans, but neither did it suggest (save perhaps in Gene Hackman’s performance) that its aspirations were anything but shrewdly commercial. The Friends of Eddie Coyle recalls the earlier—and better—film, especially in relation to its director. Nothing in William Friedkin’s earlier projects pointed toward The French Connection (nor did they seem related to one another). And, like Friedkin, director Peter Yates has never manifested anything but a technician’s interest in earning his wage: Bullitt, John and Mary, and Murphy’s War are comparable only in a consistent failure to get inside any of the characters and, especially in Bullitt and Murphy, a tendency to substitute facile rhetoric (McQueen’s indefensibly complacent “Bullshit!” to Robert Vaughn, followed shortly by Vaughn’s retreat behind a copy of The Wall Street Journal) for serious moral perspective.
But Eddie Coyle works as Yates’s earlier films do not. It works because Yates’s habitually uncommitted point-of-view is appropriate to the seasoned, didactic monotone of George V. Higgins’s novel. The book was practically a scenario as it stood, and Yates and adapter-producer Paul Monash (Slaughterhouse Five) have, for the most part, stuck by it: Higgins regularly interspersed chapters of mostly dialogue between crooks A and B, dialogue between crook A and cop A, dialogue between between crooks A and C, dialogue between crook C and cop A, dialogue between cops A and B …, on and on, tracing an incestuous pattern of casual, causal, at times almost bemused mutual betrayal. Yates’s dispassionate shooting of those scenes in clinically sound locations certifies the grimness of Higgins’s thesis (one gets a grubbily incontestable, time-and-money demonstration that crime often pays miserably), and ultimately he improves upon the experience of the book simply because the visual experience of the film is less monotonous than the verbal experience of the book. One quickly nods that, yes yes, surely the idea in the book was that everyone in this flipside of the normal workaday world does talk and operate the same, including the cops (and very juicy talk it is); but the film manages to convey that observation while benefiting from the simple fact that we are, after all, watching different actors rather than reading Higgins’s blank reverse-angle dialogues between two faceless names.
What is more, the casting and the performances in the film are unexceptionably superb, with especial bows to Steve Keats as a gun runner, Richard Jordan as a soulless young cop who plays off his stoolies against one another with chilling Machiavellianism, and Alex Rocco as a bankrobber who daylights as a bulldozer operator. But top honors—and surely an Oscar nomination—go to Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle, here denied the customary sardonic heroism that has seen him through previous loser roles (some perfect “Mitchum lines” in the novel have been dropped from, or toned down in, the film). He has often inhabited characterizations beautifully: this is not one of those awful, phony, selfconscious essays at “acting” in quotation marks that our great naturals sometimes get sucked into as atonement for having been stars, but it is possible here to observe him in a subtly considered performance that bespeaks compleat professionalism and a sensitivity Mitchum works hard to deny in interviews.
2016 addendum: Mitchum did not get that Academy nomination.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE
Direction: Peter Yates. Screenplay: Paul Monash, after the novel by George V. Higgins. Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper. Production: Monash.
The Players: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steve Keats, Alex Rocco, Mitchell Ryan.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson