Martin Scorsese once declared “Mitchum is noir,” and the statement holds layers of meaning. Right on top, there’s the plain fact that, with films like Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum starred in some of the defining movies of the uneasy genre that bubbled up from America’s dark subconscious in the years surrounding WWII. Just beneath lies another suggestion: that Mitchum’s life itself resembled a noir narrative – a man, after all, who’d been a drifter during the Depression, who served time on a chain-gang, and who wound up behind bars again after he’d worked his way to stardom, following the infamous 1948 drugs bust, playing patsy in a shady Hollywood sting.
Underneath again, though, Scorsese’s comment touches upon something more intangible: the way that Mitchum – cynical, fatalistic, not giving much of a damn either way – just seemed to embody the very spirit of noir. Warping this way and that, it was a quality that subtly infected almost every performance by this most subtle of actors. Time and again, Mitchum played men who knew they were born to lose, yet were still looking for, as he put it in Out of the Past, “a way to lose more slowly.”
After its black explosion across the 1940s and 50s, film noir – the genuine article, that is, as opposed to ersatz copies – had largely lain dormant in American cinema for years. By the early 1970s, though, following the years of assassination, Vietnam and Watergate, conditions were right, bleak enough, for the mood to rise once more. The national air of weary disenchantment, paranoia and impending violence fuelled the wave that includes The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976).
And when film noir returned, it found Robert Mitchum there still, waiting patiently, saying hello to darkness like an old friend. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973) might not be as well known as the movies mentioned above (indeed, barring imports, it didn’t warrant a home video release in the UK until 2015), but, setting the pace at the head of the pack, it is a key movie of the ’70s cycle.
Based on George V Higgins’s brilliant 1972 novel, it was directed in 1973 by Peter Yates, although anyone looking for the hard style and action of Yates’s most famous movie – 1968’s Steve McQueen vehicle, Bullitt – might be hard pressed to recognise the same filmmaker. Slipping down into slow-burn naturalism, Eddie Coyle fizzles and dies against the battered fringes of blue-collar Boston in cold late autumn. Occasionally, we glimpse parks where trees are in a glorious riot of red and gold. Mostly, though, the story unfolds in drab, grey, forgotten urban spaces: empty bars, neglected diners, and – repeatedly – dismal car parks.
Such is the transitory world where Eddie (Mitchum) plies his trade. A lowly career criminal who knows everyone, he does shabby jobs for players in the Boston mob, including buying guns for a gang of bank robbers. But, in his late fifties, with kids to feed, Eddie is feeling old, and growing desperate. Arrested during a previous smuggling scam organised by his connected bartender friend, Dillon (the great Peter Boyle), he’s awaiting sentencing, and, a three-time loser, facing hefty jail time.
And so he tries playing both sides, looking to cut a deal with an undercover Treasury agent (the undervalued Richard Jordan), offering to feed him information. But, with friends like Eddie’s, informing is a dangerous thing to contemplate.
Like Higgins’s novel, the film is carried by its dialogue, a banal, burned-out poetry. Flat and toneless, yet weird and colourful, these lowlifes sound entirely authentic; a former assistant attorney general, Higgins picked up their rhythms and motives while listening to real-life wiretap recordings. What renders the film so potent, however, is its feeling of time fading inevitably away, and its constant undertow of surveillance and sell-out: the sense of everybody watching everybody else, looking after themselves, and reporting to someone else again.
Caught hopeless in the middle, Mitchum’s Eddie is no hero. Stuck forever in the small-time, he’s no longer even dreaming of the big score, just looking to survive, entirely alone for all his “friends.” Jordan’s cop supplies the best description of the way he drifts between cops and crooks, not quite wanted by either: “He’s like a stray dog.”
Mitchum simply operates on a different level here. Every second of the performance feels real. With beautiful minimalism, he captures a man whose oblivious tragedy is to be a bit-player in his own life, losing faster every second.