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Dead Man Walking

Peter Yates’s low-key 1973 crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle gave Robert Mitchum one of his greatest roles

An instant classic, George V. Higgins’s 1972 fictional debut The Friends of Eddie Coyle was as much a play as a novel: a sort of La Ronde of crime fiction, elegantly suggesting in a series of interlacing dialogues a dance of exploitation and betrayal never quite spelled out. The dialogue was a brilliant simulacrum of real speech, compressed and stylized enough to be readable, but not so clever or colorful as to sound like the work of a screenwriter. The scenes were fragmentary, and much of what was important happened just out of range: an aesthetic of the wiretap, wielded by a lawyer well acquainted with the legal and criminal worlds of Boston and environs. Long before the public knew anything about the troubling intersections of Boston mobsters and the Feds, Higgins had conveyed the gist of the situation with a Zen-like detachment. The story had no moral beyond “That’s the way it is.”

When Peter Yates’s film version came out in 1973, it was received with some disappointment: the book didn’t work on the screen; the movie was too flat, too monotonous, too underdramatized. Seen today, the movie’s supposed faults look like virtues. Admittedly, the standards of its moment were high: this was the era of Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Get Carter, The Getaway, The Godfather. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a rhythm and tonality of its own. The ingenuity of Higgins’s narrative structure and the laconic bite of his language find their counterpart in a beautifully sustained visual scheme—Victor Kemper’s cinematography makes a world of Melvillean abstraction out of the surfaces of diners, suburban banks, shopping-mall parking lots—and an ensemble attuned, down to the smallest bit player, to the film’s mood of evenly diffused unease.

It is a crime film with hardly any violence, hardly any raised voices, though every moment, for nearly every character, is pitched somewhere near the edge of desperation. If it weren’t goosed along by Dave Grusin’s jazzy score—a little too lively and extroverted for the drabness of the Boston-area locations—the movie would seem even more deliberately unemphatic. Behavior is humdrum and businesslike, whether it’s a question of masked home invaders taking a banker’s family hostage or a bartender haggling over the payment arrangements for killing a friend. As Peter Boyle remarks in characteristic less-is-more argot: “I know these guys. They’re serious. I know them very well.” In a milieu of routine mutual mistrust, people go about their business, whether it’s robbing banks or selling guns or getting ahead as a Treasury agent.

Although several characters die violently, there is no sense of anyone having any particular relish for the job of killing; it’s just an unavoidable occupational hazard. Most of the movie presents scenes of people, on either side of the law, taking elaborate precautionary measures to avoid getting stung. Robert Mitchum’s Eddie Coyle has already been stung—he’s due to go to prison in New Hampshire for an illegal trucking job—and the narrative merely diagrams the quiet and ineluctable process by which his last-ditch efforts at self-preservation go terminally sour. The last scene—a typically early-­Seventies Triumph of the System—produces not so much moral outrage as a sense of a theorem satisfactorily demonstrated.

A major reason to see the film is to catch Mitchum in a part worthy of him, something that happened with decreasing frequency in his later career. The beauty of his performance as Coyle is how completely he blends in with the rest of the cast—Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, and many others more obscure—with not a trace of a star’s aura to foreground him. Yet of course he is in the foreground anyway; he could hardly help it. It was never easy for Robert Mitchum to get lost in a crowd on screen. In an early walk-on in The Human Comedy (43), as one of three GIs on leave, he effortlessly dominates the scene by standing there doing nothing at all, without even a line of dialogue. He was an actor who—apart from his version of Brechtian stylization in The Night of the Hunter and his sporadic Australian accent in The Sundowners—rarely had to do more than open his eyes or stand or sit down to convey remarkably nuanced feeling.

The part he plays here is almost no part at all: a man used up, already defeated—he’s had his knuckles smashed for an earlier mistake—who lives from one small job to the next, the seasoned hard-boiled loser who knows he’s doomed but would never be so weak as to acknowledge it. At moments he seems to be talking to himself, performing for his own benefit as if to check that he’s still bringing it off. Deep weariness and disappointment hover in every gesture and line reading, especially when he manages to get off a funny remark. By the time he goes down for the last time—sad and drunk at a Bruins game, working up some halfhearted enthusiasm for “Number Four, Bobby Orr”—it already feels like an afterthought: he’s been a walking dead man since he walked into the frame for the first time. But from beginning to end we are persuaded—and this was Mitchum’s mysterious genius—that his Eddie Coyle is a man we’ve known, or even been.