'The Friends of Eddie Coyle'; 'The Hit'
It's all about the snitches in two new Criterion releases
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., June 12, 2009
The Friends of Eddie CoyleThe Criterion Collection, $29.95
The HitThe Criterion Collection, $29.95
You dirty rat. Or as the English term informers, you rotten "grass." Not quite the same ring, but for Brit directors Peter Yates and Stephen Frears, casting yielded "supergrass." By 1973 and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Yates had already enjoyed critical and commercial success with Steve McQueen hubcap shuffle Bullitt (1968), before going on to helm other Hollywood hits such as The Deep, Breaking Away, and The Dresser. As Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, Robert Mitchum gave Yates' color noir the hangdog slump of 1970s grim reality. Facing another stint in the pen, Mitchum's eroded father of three sits between the man (a typically slippery Richard Jordon) and the so-called "friends" Johnny Law wants behind bars, which here translate into era all-stars Peter Boyle, Alex Rocco, The Rockford Files' Joe Santos, and the always unpredictable Steven Keats as a (machine) gun runner. Dated by its washed-out palette and/or film stock, plus David Grusin's drab jazz score, what at first looks like a heist procedural quickly becomes a precursor to Spike Lee's 25th Hour, wherein Mitchum's dwindling time heightens paranoia among the jackals. 2000's Sexy Beast, by contrast, yields precedence to Stephen Frears' riotous return to the big screen, The Hit, from 1984. Though the director made his feature debut in 1972 with Albert Finney doing Humphrey Bogart in Gumshoe, Frears spent the succeeding dozen years in British TV, breaking out with The Hit before going on to make My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, and The Queen. In Terence Stamp, another initial outsider of sorts, Frears got a leading man who could well have been the notorious UK turncoat Bertie Smalls, who provided the inspiration for Stamp's informant, Willie Parker (and whose real-life testimony prompted his "associates" in the prisoners' dock to break into an impromptu version of "We'll Meet Again"). The empyrean face and icy blue eyes of her majesty's thespian brigade of the 1960s, Stamp spent most of the next decade digesting the previous one until Richard Donner dangled Marlon Brando in Superman (1978). Even then, the East Londoner basically languished in B-grade paydays before Stephen Soderbergh's The Limey reintroduced Stamp to the silver screen's hall of icons. Together, he and Frears execute the perfect origin story to The Limey, one whose road trip to Madrid unfolds like a gonzo version of Michelangelo Antonioni. John Hurt as the hit man foreclosing on Stamp's Spanish exile with the "help" of hothead first-timer (in celluloid as in real life) Tim Roth – in a role Joe Strummer had agreed to until his band said no – gets top billing, but it's his charge that steals the show. And what a show: Fernando Rey's nonspeaking role as the pursuant posse, Laura del Sol's kidnapped scrapper, and in the sunset backdrop of the windmill scene, even a fat man riding a burro. Frears' shifts in tone, from Roth's hilarious scene chewing to cold-blooded violence, are almost as seamless as in his later mastery. Stamps' imperturbable demeanor, meanwhile, rivals Franco-Italian beautification. Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and Eric Clapton seal the score. A commentary track with Frears, Hurt, Roth, and others won't disappoint, but a bonus television interview of Stamp from 1988 is as good as anything the face ever graced.