The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the story of a small-time, hard-luck Boston crook due to start serving time in a few weeks. A hangdog Robert Mitchum underplays the role with such precision that you quickly forget that you're watching one of cinema's most iconic actors... no mean feat and a testament to Mitchum's acting prowess. A palpable sense of doom hangs over Eddie from the opening frame – he just isn't going to be able to cut it in prison and this fact compels his every move. The clock is ticking and his remaining hours of freedom are quickly melting away. In this regard, the film's plot structure shares some thematic similarities with Rudolph Maté's excellent 1950 Noir, D.O.A. but whereas the central character in Maté's film is racing against time to save himself, Eddie Coyle is resigned to his fate. The result is a unique look at the inevitable - the audience quickly comes to understand that Coyle can't escape this fate and his actions aren't the central focus of the story. What The Friends of Eddie Coyle offers instead, is a rare, unflinching and realistic glimpse deep into a flawed character's soul. Coyle is a protagonist whose past choices have led him to this point in time and one assumes, if given the opportunity to do it all over again, he'd likely end up in exactly the same place.
This is a hard film to label with anything other than the Noir moniker, but at its core The Friends of Eddie Coyle has more in common with John Huston's Alphabet City or Robert Mulligan's tragically under-appreciated The Nickle Ride than it does with say, Chinatown. It's a gritty '70s loser-drama mired in realism rather than existentialism like most films in the Noir canon. As a result, it stands nearly alone amongst films in the neo-Noir tradition, at once similar and yet distinctly removed from the Noir style.
It's an overused noun but The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a true masterpiece, a work of extraordinary skill and an artistic achievement of the highest order. The cast is filled with stellar character actors who couldn't catch a cold in Hollywood today. The script is more a compression of the novel than an adaptation in any traditional sense. The only misstep might be Dave Gruisin's overwrought score which seems at odds with the rest of the picture. It's also one of the only things the film makers added that didn't have its source in Higgin's original novel. If ever a film didn't need a score at all, this is it.
While it's true that they “don't make them like this anymore” it's also true that they never did. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a unique film that got lost and remains so. It might be the ultimate cult movie, revered by it's small fan base and nearly unknown to everyone else
...and that's just fine by me.