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Meetings with Mitchum

An audiovisual essay and text reflecting on Robert Mitchum and his roles in 70s crime dramas "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and "The Yakuza".

Between 1970 and 1975—and the ages of 53 and 58—Robert Mitchum made six films. The beginning of the decade found him in Ireland taking on the role of schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessey in David Lean’s epic Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and five years later he was starring as Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler adaptation Farewell My Lovely (1975). In between, he made the father-son melodrama Going Home (1971), an eccentric western called The Wrath of God (1972) and two crime dramas made back-to-back in 1973 and 1974. While they have a couple of other elements in common besides Mitchum—actor Richard Jordan, composer Dave Grusin—The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and The Yakuza (1974) are poles apart in terms of tone. Broadly speaking, the first is low-key, downbeat and domestic, the second is glossy and globetrottingly exotic.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is based on the debut novel by George V. Higgins, a lawyer and former Assistant Attorney General who became a journalist before publishing his first book in 1970. Set in Higgins’ home state of Massachusetts, it’s the story of an ageing crook and middleman who finds himself torn between the mob and the police. British filmmaker Peter Yates directed the film some five years after his explosive Hollywood debut, the Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt (1968). The Friends of Eddie Coyle is, of course, a very different kind of picture, but just as Yates took care to engage intelligently with McQueen’s image in Bullitt, the director does the same with Mitchum’s. ‘Coyle’s world of omnipresent corruption connected the character to the classic era of film noir in a way that provided the film with a strong sense of tradition, of ritual’ notes Mitchum’s biographer Lee Server, ‘To those who knew and loved Mitchum’s earlier work, Eddie Coyle was a middle-aged relative of outside-the-law protagonists like Jeff Bailey [Out of The Past], Dan Milner [His Kind of Woman] and the other noir stumblebums who tried to play both sides against the middle and came up dead or close to it.’1 ‘Stumblebum’ is such a great expression, one that can be used to characterise many a male protagonist of the New American Cinema, from Stacy Keach’s over-the-hill boxer in Fat City (John Huston, 1972) to Al Pacino’s drifter in Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973). Physically, Mitchum seems to differ a little from the Eddie Coyle described in Higgins’ original novel. Well, I say ‘described’, in reality this is boiled down – at least early on in the novel - to just one adjective: ‘stocky’, not a word you tend to associate with the 6’1” Mitchum, even with a little middle age spread. To get close to the Coyle of the novel, Yates has Mitchum wear a baggy, ill-fitting overcoat and sport a haircut that, as Kent Jones puts it ‘might have been executed with a lawn trimmer.’2 Mitchum’s character in Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974) could not be more different. His Harry Kilmer is one for tailored suits and coats; he’s a cravat, poloneck and spotted tie man with a hairstyle reminiscent of Roger Moore’s aristocrat Lord Brett Sinclair in British TV series The Persuaders! (1971).

The Yakuza is based on an original screenplay by Leonard and Paul Schrader and tells of a retired detective who is asked by an old army friend to track down his daughter who is being held hostage by the yakuza in Japan. The Schrader brothers wrote the screenplay in a matter of weeks inspired by Leonard’s love of Japanese gangster films. The completed script sold for the then-astronomical sum of $325,000 but Paul was said to have been frustrated when script doctor du jour Robert Towne was called in to perform a rewrite:

‘My objections at the time were different from my feelings today. At the time I was being very snotty about it and I don’t really think I understood how collaboratively films are made. What essentially happened was that the director Sydney Pollack was not terribly comfortable with making a pure gangster film so he brought in Bob Towne to heighten the international romantic element and I think that the final film sort of fell between two stools.’3

You can certainly see Schrader’s point, but that’s not to say that Pollack was not an innovative, daring filmmaker in his own right. Among his early films were Castle Keep (1968) - an offbeat war picture which predates the likes of Kelly’s Heroes (Brian G. Hutton, 1969) and M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970) - the revisionist western Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1973), a Depression-set film centring on a dance marathon. The original director for The Yakuza was meant to have been Robert Aldrich and you can imagine that his vision would have been radically different to Pollack’s (who knows, maybe closer to Yates?). Speaking of his approach to directing Mitchum, Pollack said that he ‘found him to be like a very, very powerful and lazy horse […] He wants to talk as slow as possible and wants to get away with doing as little as possible. You used to really have to push him. He won’t offer the full emotional nature of a performance, at least he didn’t for me, until you went after him a little bit.’4

In this audiovisual essay, I use the figure of Robert Mitchum and the theme of ‘meetings’ to reflect on the links as well as the formal and thematic differences between The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Yakuza. Apart from contrasting Mitchum’s performances and physicality, I compare the visual and aural textures of both films as well as their construction of filmic space.
 

Notes

1. Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p.547

2. Kent Jones, ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle: They Were Expendable’ (2009), http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1147-the-friends-of-eddie-coyle-they-were-expendable

3. Paul Schrader in Kevin Jackson (ed), Schrader On Schrader and Other Writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p.113

4. Sydney Pollack quoted in Server, pp.552-553

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