I almost tossed this into a comment on the Bronson/Majestyk post, as this is another gritty, casually-paced exemplar of a ’70s crime film. However, while that film certainly works, this film carefully, slyly sneaks into classic territory. You may think its depiction of a few subplots of Boston hoodlum subculture is simply on the same back-alley route, attentive to the grime and tough talk, en route to a few bang-up chases or gunfights. But we’re thrown into events, never given the narrative road-map: it’s like we’ve plopped down into a few late-fall, slate-grey days in the life of a shitty little cul-de-sac of criminal subculture in Boston, 1973. Everybody here seems to be nursing a hangover, the action is rarely overt (and even during a couple of heists, the emphasis is on unease rather than suspense), and all the violence is sublimated in dialogue that pops and pisses and moans and snarls without really ever taking the easy path to patter.
And the performances…. damn. Robert Mitchum is the heart of the film, but his Eddie Coyle–a sad sack tagged for a booze-truck heist, looking to avoid leaving his family for even that short stretch–is wandering around, doing a job here, having a drink there, unsure what’s what. Richard Jordan plays a slimy, sort of self-satisfied Treasury agent running a few informants; Peter Boyle is a barkeep hooked deeply into the crowd; the many lowlifes circling around are each perfect, particularly Alex Rocco and Steven Keats.
Without spoiling anything, I’ll note that the film ends with a short, opaque bit of dialogue–ostensibly some kind of philosophy-of-crime analogy that only sort of makes sense, but serves the purpose of all the conversations in the film: each guy wants something from the other guy, and they talk as if they’re really exchanging and transacting, even as they each carefully try to avoid giving anything away, grasping to get as much as they can. It’s a helluva good film.