The critical work on the American New Wave, it seems, has only just begun — Robert Altman still gets a free skate (who thinks “M*A*S*H” is worthwhile anymore?), Hal Ashby has been sanctified, but Alan J. Pakula has not, and Robert Aldrich’s contributions to the decade are forgotten, while the proper canonization of the films of Monte Hellman and Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” is paperwork still waiting to be filed, and the few fascinating films Peter Fonda directed are still cinema non grata. The era’s propensity for desperate road travel, dusty realism and pitiless narrative makes it the match for the meaning of film noir, but as yet it seems more critical and academic thought has been devoted, generally, to “Blade Runner” and “E.T.”, to the least of Hitchcock’s films and to the oeuvre of David Fincher. There’s still so much that’s left out of the discussion — for example, the ’67-’77 period’s genuine, humanizing and startling passion for American subcultures, be they road racing, bar life, cockfighting, country music, grunt military life, farming, moonshining, surveillance work, construction, beauty pageants, Little League baseball and so on. For a span, a very real America thrived on movie screens, a nation we’d never seen before on film, and for that alone the era should be reexamined.
But there are recent glimmers of regard in the murk, not the least of which is Criterion’s feting of Peter Yates’ all but forgotten crime ballade “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), a film that seemed to coast on post-“French Connection” vibes and affection for the weathered mountainside that Robert Mitchum had become in middle age, but which at the same time was never taken seriously by critics, and disappeared without much ado. (I was too young in ’73, but my “Godfather”-loving mother saw it, Mitchum-ophile that she was and still is.)
Yates’ film, based on a virtually-all-dialogue novel by George V. Higgins, is hardly a thrillathon in the car-chase days of “Bullitt,” “The French Connection,” “The Parallax View” or “The Seven-Ups.” But its elusive stasis is what makes it remarkable. The story is structured almost completely as a series of secret, mano-a-mano backroom discussions, each unfailingly placed in a grungy urban locale of exactly the sort in which no one ever shot movies even five years earlier. Mitchum, lugging himself around like an old bulldog, is Coyle, a petty Boston crook with an extra set of broken-finger knuckles, trying to at least appear to go straight even as he contemplates ratting on one of his associates to get out of a felony stint he has to face in New Hampshire. At the same time, he buys guns from Steven Keats’ high-strung young runner, while a motley crew of bank robbers enjoy a holdup spree, and we’re more than an hour in before we’re clear on the connections between the two threads. Likewise, Peter Boyle’s bartender-snitch-confidant is also an offhand hitman, Alex Rocco’s bank robber may be the only straight-shooter in sight, and Richard Jordan’s turtlenecked fed oozes the moral compromise of all authority. In a dance of veils, the story reveals itself — we thought it was how Coyle would wriggle free and begin again (because it’s clear he wishes to), but then we slowly understand it’s a tale of Coyle’s inevitable doom.
You have to admire the film and its elusive, elliptical set of nuts, and for Victor Kemper’s classic early-’70s cinematography, all burned-out windows, endless shadows and chilled Boston aura, and the actors all bring their real deals to the table, Method or no Method. Still, Yates is no Cassavetes or Lumet, and his film suffers from a tentativeness and an occasional urge toward unnecessary jazziness. (Honestly, Dave Grusin’s brass-blast soundtrack, which couldn’t have been cool even in 1973, does irrevocable damage to the movie’s sotto voce mood.)
In fact, there’s something about “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” that makes us want to love it more, to perceive it as a slightly richer, slightly more convincing dark night of the soul than it really is. (A credit goes, I think, to the irony-redolent title, one of the subtlest and most curious of the decade.) But the bar is high for the early ’70s by now, and the middle-shelf pillars of the age’s aesthetic deserve Criterionizing as well as any Japanese classic or French New Waver. As it is, the disc’s booklet comes with both an essay by Kent Jones (telling the perhaps tall tale of Rocco’s Boston gangster days), and a full reprint of the 1973 Rolling Stone profile of Mitchum and his co-stars by New Journalism bad boy Grover Lewis, who did the on-the-set magazine article like no one before or since, and who worked in the day when movie stars were real people giving no two shits about what reporters heard them say.