The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Criterion), adapted from the terrific novel by George V. Higgins and produced in the wake of The French Connection, is probably the least heralded crime movie classic of the seventies. Robert Mitchum is Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle, a middleman working the fringes of the Boston underworld while waiting sentencing, which prompts him into a little side-action turning informer for a real wheeler-dealer of a detective (Richard Jordan in a pitch perfect performance). Director Peter Yates finds the perfect pace for the film, never pushing the action, never forcing the tension, letting it all play out – and finally unravel – at the same pace that his characters live off the job. The characters are vivid without being eccentric, Peter Boyle is as forthright as he is impenetrable as a bartender with his fingers in plenty of schemes and Mitchum is at his best as a tired professional still hustling because it’s all he knows. Shot in that distinctive mix of location naturalism and matter-of-fact criminal activity that defined so many such films of the early seventies, Eddie Coyle lays bare the food chain of the criminal underworld, from the robbers to the gun suppliers and all the middlemen in between, including the stool pigeons. This is the first film I can think of since Pickup on South Street that portrays the informer not just in a sympathetic light but as a natural, inevitable part of the social order. Criterion’s disc features newly-recorded commentary by an aged Peter Yates and a booklet.
True Blood (HBO), a southern gothic story of vampires in the bayou and vampire rights on the cultural radar, is the closest that HBO has come to creating a buzz show since The Sopranos and Six Feet Under (and even The Wire) ended their respective runs. Adapted from the novels by Charlaine Harris and developed for HBO by Alan Ball, it stars Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a roadhouse waitress who can read minds (and believe me, there’s nothing going on in their small, petty minds that she wants to hear), and Bill Compton as a vampire who, like the rest of the undead nation, has come out of the closet with the invention of synthetic blood. This is a sexy show, to be sure, but it’s also primal and feral (the humans as much as the vamps) and mix of prejudice and predators and cultural color gives it plenty to chew on. The season finale cliffhanger is a playful kicker. 12 episodes on five discs in a hefty, heavyweight foldout digipak in an equally sturdy slipsleeve. “Six Feet Under was all about repression,” explains Alan Ball in the commentary to the pilot episode. “To me, this show is all about the mess of nature and emotions and intimacy.” Various directors and cast members chime on five other commentary tracks.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount), James Stewart is decades too old to play the naïve tenderfoot who finds the west a little more wild than he expected, and John Ford hardly leaves the confines of the soundstage, giving it an oddly claustrophobic feeling. Yet this is one of the great westerns. Ford punctures the heroic myths he helped create in a bitter tale of a freedom-loving gunfighter (John Wayne) who dreads the coming of civilization and its structures to the wide open towns and lawless plains, yet sacrifices himself to make it happen. Ford has never made a darker portrait of the lies and the lives that built the west: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Paramount comes out with a new two-disc special edition with new commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (which he supplements with archival recordings from his interviews with John Ford and James Stewart), a second track with bonus audio clips of Ford, Stewart and Lee Marvin and a new seven-part featurette “The Size of Legends, The Souls of Myth.”
It’s a great week for Japanese genre cinema. Criterion puts out the box set Pigs, Pimps, And Prostitutes: 3 Films By Shohei Imamura, featuring three early films from the sixties, when he was an inventive, daring young filmmaker shaking up the industry, and at Parallax View I celebrate the major pleasure of minor yakuza thrillers Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Kino), an early gangster movie goof from Japanese genre maverick Seijun Suzuki, and Wandering Ginza Butterfly (Synapse), with Meiko Kaji.
And for Blu-ray, let me draw some much-deserved attention to Changing Lanes (Paramount), one of the more underrated films of urban anger and petty vengeance. Samuel L. Jackson is a recovering alcoholic whose sincere efforts to put his life back together is frustrated by unresolved anger and a self-righteous sense of vengeance. Ben Affleck is a smug, self-absorbed lawyer who refuses to accept culpability for his moral lapses and deals with pangs of guilt by going on the attack. Believe it or not, they are the heroes of this dark look at two men whose collision sparks a war of destructive one-upmanship that unravels their lives and, worse, their humanity. A rare Hollywood film that deals with both the violence and the turmoil and the regret these men face when they slow to catch their breath, it’s searing for most the emotional ride, with some genuinely chilling moments of impulsive human malevolence and a morally ambiguous climax that twists the knife of poetic justice. Even the contrived happy coda concludes in the key of doubt, though director Roger Michell (in his commentary) is the first to admit he’s still uncertain about it.
For the rest of the highlights (including new releases Valkyrie, Outlander and the French science fiction piece Eden Log), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.