There is a moment when Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), or Eddie Fingers depending on whom you're talking to, stops at a diner and orders a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, and you think that for all this guy has been through and will go through that he has earned a nice little moment for himself. He never gets it. Instead he immediately falls into conversation with a low life. "Friends of Eddie Coyle" is all business all the time. Every conversation here, save for the occasional word or two, centers around vocation, and who they are merely becomes an extension of what they do. They are career criminals, professional hoodlums, and if other movies are often intent on glamorizing this life, "Friends of Eddie Coyle", making great use of its Boston locations, which come across everyday and lived in, makes you feel how being a career criminal can feel no different than Jerry Maguire's dad working for decades in the same chair at the United Way.
Robert Mitchum emblemizes this lifestyle in a wonderfully weary performance, one where his hair constantly looks like he just tried to comb it in the rearview mirror of his car. His every mannerism, every gesture, every conversation with his loving if understandably testy Irish wife reveals a man worn to the nub by a game that never ends. He's a gun-runner, supplying pistols to a gang pulling bank jobs across the city that are well thought-out and rendered by director Peter Yates with a quiet intensity more than spine-tingling suspense. The one instant where something does go wrong, it becomes truly jarring.
Eddie, however, is in trouble, about to go away for a couple years in New Hampshire on account of something that he says wasn't his fault because that's what everyone says. An ATF agent (Richard Jordan) says if Eddie turns informant maybe they can commute his sentence. So Eddie goes along, first leading them to wayward Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) and then to the bank robbing trio. This gets Eddie in trouble with The Man, who, as his name implies, oversees everything. To ensure Eddie does no further damage, The Man summons Dillon (Peter Boyle) a bartender cum hitman who is also an informant to the ATF which Eddie doesn't know, and why would he?
One thing "Friends of Eddie Coyle" most subtly, brilliantly illustrates is how the delineation of cops and criminals, criminals and cops, bleeds into one another; they need each other, as a character in a Michael Mann movie might say. They are all wrapped up in one another's world. The difference is, a cop, with the law on his side, still has a way back out, while a criminal has no place to go when the walls close in, which is what happens throughout to the haggard Eddie Coyle, and Mitchum lets us feel those symbolic walls, as he becomes less and less interested in trying to wedge something between them to stop their advance.
The conclusion, when Dillon lures Eddie out for a night out on the town to rub him out, is terrifying, but understatedly so, particularly because the film never goes the action-oriented route by turning it into a chase and escape. Whether or not Eddie knows the actual circumstances of his situation, I don't know, because Mitchum doesn't let you know, but what Mitchum does let you know in his slightly drunk mannerisms is that he's just tired of it all either way. He's already mentally checked out.
At a hockey game, where Dillon takes him, Eddie looks down at the ice and at Bobby Orr. "Bobby Orr!" Mitchum declares with all the Mitchum-ness he can muster. "Twenty-four! The greatest hockey player in the world!" And Mitchum incredibly, beautifully, twists those words into the lament of an old man who is looking down upon a renowned youth and wondering what his life might have been.