Posted by Susan Doll on November 14, 2016
A tough week for America. After a long, bitter election year, the end game is a divided and angry country. Disillusioned with both sides, I find escape—and solace—in a pair of moody film noirs in which a cynical, jaded Robert Mitchum encapsulates how I feel.
In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time gunrunner who is barely making ends meet on the margins of the underworld. The last of his luck runs out when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.
TV writer Paul Monash adapted the screenplay from a novel by George V. Higgins, a real-life assistant DA. Higgins captured a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of street criminals. The corrupt, dog-eat-dog world of the novel easily translated to film noir. Gloomy, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum could so easily express in his baritone voice, somnolent expression and minimalist acting style.
Mitchum appears for only a quarter of the movie, but the film is remembered for his role. Director Peter Yates used Robert Mitchum’s star image to add nuance to the character of Eddie Coyle and to set the tone for the film. Mitchum’s tough guy persona, enhanced by decades of stories about his anti-authority attitude and hard knocks life, had been constructed through his roles in classic film noirs. By the 1970s, that toughness was seasoned by cynicism and pessimism. His aging, world-weary persona seemed to suit the sense of disillusionment that permeated a society that had lived through Vietnam, generational divide, soaring crime rates and political corruption.
Two years later, Mitchum starred as Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) in which the world’s most articulate hard-boiled detective is hired by the monosyllabic Moose Malloy to search for his long-lost love, Velma. Noir lovers know that the novel had been adapted to the big screen in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell as Marlowe. Powell’s snappy, wise-cracking interpretation of Chandler’s iconic P.I. is a far cry from Mitchum’s tired, aging Marlowe. While an old Philip Marlowe doesn’t sound like an enticing character, it is actually his weary, beaten-down existence that makes the film appealing. It suggests he has lived without compromise and has paid the price for not caving in to corruption. Plus, Mitchum’s legendary cool prevents the Marlowe character from being pathetic. When Powell notes that he is broke in the voice-over, it is amusing; when Mitchum reveals the same information, it suggests the price paid for playing it his way and existing on the margins of society.
Set in the 1940s, Farewell, My Lovely is rich in nostalgia, particularly for those classic film noirs from a bygone Hollywood era. The low-key and high-contrast lighting of old-school black and white noirs did not translate well into 1970s color, but director Dick Richards and cinematographer John Alonzo compensated in other ways. They depicted key scenes in a gritty yellow, like old, decrepit photos, which enhanced the nostalgia. And, like Peter Yates did in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Richards used Mitchum’s star image to enrich and expand the material. The star’s presence intentionally recalls the original cycle of film noir, while his aging face simultaneously suggests that that era has long past. Also, long gone are the values and ideals associated with that past, a time when noir’s anti-heroes came closer to saving us from darkness and restoring order to the world. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Farewell, My Lovely was a product of the dispirited 1970s, though the futility and disillusionment of both films are sadly relevant.
If viewers don’t quite catch that Mitchum’s Marlowe is supposed to be ineffectual in a world of overwhelming corruption and venality, then the reference to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio makes the point emphatic. The film is set in the year that DiMaggio experienced a streak of 50+ hits. Marlowe follows the sports hero’s achievement throughout the course of the film, only to be disappointed when DiMaggio’s hitting streak ends. Marlowe’s world—our world—has no place for heroes.
Then again, maybe I have it all wrong. Though Marlowe does not save his client or figure out the double-crosses in time, which is typical of film noir, his final gesture is an act of sacrifice for the only innocent character. As he embarks on this last act, he tosses a baseball in the air—a reminder of a time when DiMaggio was a hero who held America together with his winning streak. Perhaps, Roger Ebert understood it best when he wrote that film noir was “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.“
You can find The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Farewell, My Lovely under Neo-Noir on FilmStruck.
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