Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger)
The Nominees: Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Al Pacino (Serpico), Robert Redford (The Sting)
Robert Mitchum (The Friends of Eddie Coyle)
My Nominees: Paul Newman (The Sting), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Al Pacino (Serpico), Robert Redford (The Sting)
|Perhaps fearing that Marlon Brando would repeat his embarrassing Oscar night stunt from the previous year, the academy granted him a second Best Actor nomination in a row but this time gave the award to someone a little more gracious. At the podium, winner Jack Lemmon answered the snub by previous winners Brando and George C. Scott by saying, "In recent years, there's been a great deal of criticism about this award and probably a great deal of that criticism is very justified. Whether it is justified or not, I think it is one hell of an honor and I am thrilled."
Most of us would have responded to the honor with Lemmon's joy rather than Brando's snub. We could always identify with him. He's a regular schmo, the ordinary guy who wasn't born with matinee idol looks or an easy patented charm. He was a wonderful actor who could play comedy as well as drama and in his career, he would win Oscars for both. His comedic performance as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts got him the Best Supporting Actor prize in 1956 and he won the Best Actor prize for his serious dramatic performance in John G. Avildson's Save the Tiger.
Lemmon was so passionate about bringing Steve Shagan's screenplay to life that he helped finance the film and agreed to work for scale. He would win the Oscar for his efforts but in the cannon of his great performances, this one leaves me a little cold. His performance as Harry Stoner, a dress maker whose business and personal life are coming apart at the seams, is not one of his best. I like to see Lemmon's dramatic side when it contains a tinge of comedy (as in Billy Wilder's The Apartment) because he always possessed the ability to laugh at himself. He was an actor who knew how to play big and when he plays hard and serious, he tends to overact.
I certainly can't say that about Robert Mitchum in his unnominated performance in Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, one of the decade's great lost treasures. Mitchum is one of my favorite actors because he never seemed to possess an "acting technique." Watching him I have always felt that the camera just found him and recorded his character's life. With his hang-dog face and gravel voice you always sensed, even in his youth, that there was a lot of life behind him. His weary eyes betray a lifetime of hard luck.
He plays Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a blue collar criminal who works within the criminal world as a reliable functionary but never a mastermind. He is more than happy to do favors, to purchase the guns for a heist or scout a location but he doesn't live in the spotlight. He's been working in the shadows for most of his life, he has learned a lot but hasn't developed a lot of common sense. He's been in and out of prison several times and, at present, is facing a two year sentence in New Hampshire for transporting stolen goods. When we meet him, he knows the trouble that is staring him in the face and tries to reason with a young gun dealer named Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), whom Eddie can sense is smart but reckless.
The underworld that Eddie maneuvers around is filled with men just like himself, middle-aged guys who go about their business, providing pieces and parts to put together a bank job here or gun sale there. But these are guys he doesn't know too well, guys who would sell him out in a minute just to save their own skins. At present, three men occupy his time, one is Jackie, who is always due for a lecture. Another is Dillon (Peter Boyle), a bartender that Eddie thinks he can trust. Then there's Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), a federal agent who has a leash on Eddie by offering him amnesty from prison in exchange for turning in his "friends" who are committing a series of bank robberies around town.
Eddie secures handguns from Jackie for the robberies, while Dillon secretly keeps an eye on Eddie's pals and reports back to Foley. There's something going on around Dillion, but he can't tell what it is. There are a lot of people coming and going from his place and a lot of private phone calls going in and out. He rats these men out to Foley, even though he really doesn't have all the right information. Dillon is willing to rat everyone out, but Eddie stays at odds with his loyalties to his colleagues.
In the middle is Foley, who plays both sides in opposite directions. While he gets bits of information from Dillon that might help, he gets just as many bits of information from Eddie but does little with it. He knows he has good information from Dillion even though he is being fed information in dribs and drabs. He knows he has Eddie over a barrel and keeps his leash very short. He offers few favors and doesn't seem willing to go to any great lengths to help him. Meanwhile the noose is tightening around Eddie's neck, even though he doesn't really know who's doing the tightening.
All Eddie really wants is a break. Just past fifty, he wants to retire from this life with his freedom and with his dignity intact. He's a good guy, a guy with a lot of experience behind him and a lot of wisdom to impart. He tells Jackie: "I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a buncha punks drinkin' the beer, eatin' the hash and the hot dogs and watchin' the other people go off to Florida while I'm sweatin' out how I'm gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood upm but I can't take no more chances. Next time, it's gonna be me goin' to Florida."
He has several conversations with Jackie in which he gives fatherly advice about the life they have chosen. Jackie is smart and cautious but he's operating in a world that involves hotheads who could get him in a lot of trouble if he skimps on the details. Eddie advises him, for example, that it is a bad idea to deal with multiple clients from the same lot of guns. Later, during a deal, this advice nearly gets Jackie in trouble, but he thinks fast and overturns what could have been a bad situation. This salvation comes from Eddie's advice but the irony is that Eddie isn't nearly as cautious. His downfall is tragic but, in a way, it makes sense in the reality of this film.
What makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle so fascinating is that director Peter Yates refuses to give his scenes any juiced-up urgency. The film is almost like a documentary of these men going about their daily routine, making deals, planning jobs and pulling them off. When they pull off a bank job, it has the slow, leisure pace of real-life, no music, no fast editing, nothing forced or overblown. Early in the film, the bank robbers kidnap the bank manager at his home and force him to go with them to the bank while they leave one man home with his family. When they get to the bank, they go through the routine of waiting on the time lock, then stealing the loot and driving the manager to a secure location to let him go. This is one of the best bank robberies I have ever seen in a movie because it is completely devoid of sensationalism, it has a sort of slow pacing as it would in real life. Nothing for the pulse, just the realism. The whole movie is pitched at that level. The men who surround Eddie Coyle could just as easily be selling fruit.
The realistic feel in this film is what you remember. Yates casts the film with ordinary faces: Alex Rocco, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Joe Santos, Steven Keats - but none more so than Mitchum who always seems such an organic presence in film; he doesn't look like a movie star, just a guy. Here he plays one of the saddest and most tragic of all the men he's ever played. He never played the hero in the ordinary sense, his characters were men who found themselves over a barrel and in too deep. Here he offers a man who has a lifetime of experience but hasn't learned how to keep his nose clean. That lack of common sense has put him on a downward slide from which he cannot return and in that downward slide, he attempts to save a smart young kid from falling into the same trap.