Based on a true story The Brink’s Job opens in 1938 in the city of Boston, Massachusetts where an inept gang headed by small-time crook Tony Pino (Peter Falk) bungle their raid on a sausage factory. Slapped with a six year sentence, Tony emerges from jail in 1944 but seems cursed to a series of botched jobs until he hits on the audacious idea of robbing the Brink’s security company. To pull off this risk-laden heist, he assembles a gang of similarly down-on-their-luck criminals, including his dimwit brother-in-law Vinnie (Allen Garfield), smooth bookie Jazz Maffie (Paul Sorvino), naval buddy Sandy Richardson (Gerald Murphy) and jittery loser Stanley Gusciora (Kevin O’Connor). While still in the planning stage, the group are approached by Joe McGuiness (Peter Boyle), a ruthless and well-connected fence who wants in on the job. Eventually, on January 5th, 1950 this band of nitwits somehow pull off the biggest robbery in American history.
At least it was the biggest robbery up to that time. Aside from inspiring an infamous quip from Groucho Marx, the real Brink’s Job spawned two other movies - Blueprint for Robbery (1961) and Brink’s: The Great Robbery (1976) - before William Friedkin opted to adapt the semi-factual novel “Big Stick-Up At Brink’s” written by Noel Behn, who would later pen episodes of Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street. Coming after the costly failure of Sorcerer (1977), a frantic crime comedy might seem like a change of pace for the man behind The Exorcist (1973) but actually the film marks Friedkin’s return to comedy. His earliest works were good-natured musical farces, Good Times (1967) and The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), although here Friedkin reuses techniques from his gritty, Oscar-winning thriller The French Connection (1971) to impart a restless, street level authenticity.
It is a lavish production, suffused with period detail and beautifully designed by the great Dean Tavoularis, but though laden with quirky character turns the tone seems misjudged and simply not that funny. Comedy just isn’t Friedkin’s forte. Much of the humour involves heavy-handed slapstick where the accident-prone thieves either drop things or trip over, as with their disastrous raid on a gumball factory or the moment a falling safe narrowly misses Vinnie’s head. Peter Falk is delightfully wry and Warren Oates turns in another scene-stealing performance as Specs O’Keefe, the seemingly smart safecracker who turns out to be completely crackers (he plans to open the safe with a bazooka). But the screenplay by Walon Green, writer of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Sorcerer (and, trivia buffs note: allegedly the man with a centipede crawling across his face during the tunnel scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)!), is guilty of romanticising the robbers as lovable losers. Whereas Falk’s character abhors violence, the real life Pino tried to have O’Keefe murdered.
Friedkin proves better at detailing the minutiae of the heist and getting inside Pino’s head as he assembles his plan. Falk supplies a priceless moment when he discovers Brink’s much-vaunted security isn’t what it’s cracked up to be (“This joint’s mine. I own this joint!”), but stealing the money proves nowhere as difficult as holding onto it. Amidst the frenzied aftermath, Friedkin fumbles the irony in J. Edgar Hoover (Sheldon Leonard) decrying the robbers as communists and spending twenty-five million dollars trying to recover a fraction of that amount. The humour drains out of the movie as everything unravels for the gang, but though Oates brings some much-needed pathos, Friedkin fails to convince us of the value in Tony Pino and co. being acclaimed as folk heroes. It does yield one good laugh as an elderly fan shouts out: “Remember me? You used to rob my store!”
In an amusing case of life imitating art, the production was targeted by a real gang of similarly luckless crooks. Fifteen reels of unedited film were stolen at gunpoint by robbers who demanded a $600,000 ransom. However, clearly unfamiliar with the filmmaking process, the criminals pilfered nothing but outtakes and dailies while the finished print was safe at the Technicolor lab in New York. When the gang made their ransom demand by phone, Friedkin supposedly told them to get a projector and enjoy the film since it was all theirs.
[Network's DVD has a restored print and the trailer and a gallery as extras.]
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.