You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre of film that pleases wider audiences — or spans a larger swath of film history — than the heist film, and the influence of the Peter Yates‘ banger The Friends Of Eddie Coyle stretches far and wide across the American iterations of the ol’ smash and grab.
Although best known for the 1968 Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt, Yates was also a TV veteran, with seven episodes of the classic ’60s spy show The Saint under his belt, when he helmed his adaptation of George V. Higgins’ Boston crime novel. And the pace and tone of episodic television can be felt throughout Eddie Coyle‘s tight 103 minutes, contrasting Robert Mitchum‘s slow-as-molasses delivery as the titular Eddie with quick cuts, long master shots, and unusually dynamic staging, especially when it comes to the film’s oft-imitated bank robbery scenes.
When viewing a film from the past, it’s easy to forget that what seems clichéd very well may be where the clichés come from originally. Eddie Coyle is chock full of signifiers that we’ve come to associate with heist films, including a funky soundtrack, cheap rubber masks, and the shooting of a bank employee who trips the silent alarm. Some of this harkens back to ’60s capers like The League Of Gentlemen or even Stanley Kubrick’s brutal 1956 breakthrough film, The Killing, but Eddie Coyle feels like the closest relative to the glut of robbery films that have come since.
The Town, Ben Affleck’s 2010 ode to Boston and bank robbery, bears more than just a passing resemblance to Yates’ film, despite being based on a different book. Slicker, faster, more overwrought perhaps, yet there are several scenes taken wholesale directly from Eddie Coyle. The bank hostage forced to walk, blindfolded, toward the shores of the Mystic River, in a wide panorama. The unsettling vacancy of rubber-masked eyes. The penultimate scenes take place at a Boston sports stadium. Affleck’s film takes its cues more from action films, but a straight line can be drawn from Eddie Coyle to the modern reinvention of Boston as a crime film location ripe for new stories.
The cheap plastic masks used by the criminals in the first robbery in Eddie Coyle are probably the most enduring aspect of this film’s influence. Lightly obscuring the face and leaving only eyes to play off of, they turn any actor you throw in them into a marionette, moving like a toy soldier in concert with their other toys. Whether it’s Point Break‘s ex-president rubber masks, Heat‘s hockey goalie headgear, or the clown masks in The Dark Knight, the blueprint for them all is arguably written in Eddie Coyle. Quentin Tarantino even turned the convention on its head in Reservoir Dogs by having the robbers wear identical clothing and sunglasses but keeping their faces exposed.
Something that always seems to jump off the screen in films created in the ’70s is a grittiness that isn’t duplicatable — some combination of budget, prevailing color palettes, and hairstyles that lend the films an autumnal quality. There’s a desperation that doesn’t seem to come through in films from other decades. The despair of Mitchum’s Coyle is a staple of crime fiction, but what makes his performance jump so far off the screen is his age, his weight, the general feeling of decay that hangs off him in every scene, like a racehorse that should’ve been sent to the glue factory years ago.
By no means was the type invented for this film, but Mitchum’s performance can be felt in many down-and-out losers looking for one last score. Robert Pattinson reflects the end-of-the-line exhaustion of Mitchum’s best scenes in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time as the desperate, bleached blonde hustler Connie, a stickup man decades younger and twice as jittery. He even uses disturbingly realistic rubber masks to pull off the heist. There are echoes of Mitchum’s Eddie Coyle in two George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh collaborations: the smooth-talking, jazzy, trust-me-I’m-good-for-it Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11 and its sequels wears the same longing for a simpler life while talking a bigger game than he may be able to deliver; and the desperate, on-the-run, bank robber Jack Foley in Out Of Sight has that defeated, one-job-too-many deflation that Mitchum wears so well (albeit with more jowls). The shadow of Mitchum’s performance even shows up in one of James Gandolfini‘s last roles, as the hard-drinking, prison-bound Mickey in Killing Them Softly, another Higgins adaptation.
It’s hard to define “influential” films. They’re name-dropped by directors in interviews, or named on Best Of lists, or just ripped off or “paid homage to.” Eddie Coyle has been all of these things and more and has been knocking around the watchlists of every heist film director since. There’s something about it that still seems impossibly 1970s and impossibly American, but so timeless and abstract, too. It may not be as slick as The Town or as epic as Heat or as self-consciously cool as any Tarantino flick, but without Eddie Coyle, the heist genre would be missing some of its fundamental building blocks. And we’d be missing one kickass movie.