Breaking Away (Yates, 1979)

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Modern Hollywood films often package inspiration with false-sentiment, a costly price-tag that has made a generation of viewers cynical and uncaring about the way uplifting stories are told. Character development gets pushed to the side in favor of simplistic narrative conventions, making it easy to roll your eyes at the overly emotional and hollow end-product.

This makes Peter Yates’ superbly honest Breaking Away an even more impressive feat considering the genre minefield it traverses. On the surface Breaking Away is just another sports film, that tried and true story of a small town kid transcending the odds and winning a victory for the little guy. But the film has plenty to say about how this seemingly familiar story fits into a greater human conflict, between social classes in small town America, international sporting stars and homegrown talent, and familial relationships pushed to the brink by tradition and change. Through the eyes of Dave (Dennis Christopher), a cyclist growing up amidst the constant tension of rich college kids and local “cutters” in Bloomington, Indiana, Yates shows the many disappointments and revelations of a passionate, complex young man. His growth becomes more important than the ultimate momentary victory, and Breaking Away collects these countless moments of resonance, making every character a dynamic, crucial piece Dave’s life.

It’s always surprising when a film like Breaking Away treats it’s characters like treasures, handling them with care, polishing their rough surfaces until something unique flashes for a moment. Each scene builds up a foundation of context, allowing the relationships to evolve organically instead of being dependent on extreme highs and lows. In Yates, the man also responsible for Bullitt and the nasty, fragmented slice of 70’s grit entitled The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I’ve found a resilient and diverse directorial force capable of handling many competing genres and tones with ease.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973)

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle displays a criminal world so fragile, so unassuming, it’s shocking when someone finally gets murdered. But this makes the film’s sideways universe of low-level robbers and arms dealers incredibly deceptive, a place where criminal professionalism is slowly becoming extinct and survival ranks supreme. Director Peter Yates carefully develops this space by tracking multiple players as they secretly angle for an edge. Robert Mitchum plays Eddie, an aging small time criminal who faces a 3-5 stretch in prison for a botched smuggling assignment, a job he filled in for Dillon (Peter Boyle), a shady bartender doing double-duty as a hit man and a FED stool pigeon. Yates keeps these characters apart for most of the film, connecting them through their separate interactions with Foley (Richard Jordan), a manipulative Treasury agent playing each for maximum leverage, while charting their involvement in a string of local bank robberies. Yates’ film has many moving parts, each scene playing like a unique dusty vignette of seventies crime cinema. No character stays in one place very long, and it’s this restlessness that comes to define the title’s tragic irony. In Yates’ vision, friendship is an illusion only the desperate and worried latch onto, while the impersonal and corrupt dealings of a younger generation eliminate the once sacred code of conduct between criminals. If there ever was one in the first place.