More than anything else, this is a film about Robert Mitchum’s face: soulful, hangdog, and craggy, a composed and gently amused veneer over a restless sadness. Eddie Coyle is weary, and his weariness defines him. He’s a professional in a business that rarely ends in retirement. He knows his job and his world as well as anyone, knows the guys he has to cover for and the guys he can safely fink on. (And he knows how he can justify that, at least internally, by persuading himself that Jackie Brown sells machine guns to black men; the whiteness of this milieu is deliberate and carefully maintained.) He doesn’t know anyone above middle-management–the Man of Boston’s down-at-the-heels crime world is alluded to but never appears–but, hey, he’s just a working guy. He drives trucks. He procures guns and hides them under groceries. He knows he’s too old to be the father of such young kids and he doesn’t want to go to prison, not even for two years, not even for eight months. But he wants to find a way to live with what he’ll do to get out of it.
Eddie is self-deceiving, less loyal than he would like to be, less attuned than he thinks, but Yates captures his exhaustion and his hesitations and finds a real ache there, the ache of a dinosaur collapsing in a tar pit. Eddie’s world was never noble, but it’s gradually giving up even trying to be. It’s not the youngest crook in the movie who is winning out but Dillon, the calmest and most amoral–and the most flexible. It’s an economic transition as much as anything else. Years too early, we’re seeing the downfall of the pension, the loss of the idea that if you worked hard all your life, you’d be taken care of at the end, and seeing the start of the gig economy and the consultant, the stringing together of several jobs, the absence of loyalty and trust. Maybe crime is always just capitalism on an accelerated course.
In any case, Eddie’s not flexible. When the wind blows hard, he breaks, and Mitchum and Yates (and Higgins before them) make his fall worthy of attention.