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On Dec. 8, 1978, Universal unveiled William Friedkin’s heist film The Brink’s Job in theaters. The 103-minute film went on to earn an Oscar nomination for art direction at the 51st Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
If anyone still thinks that crime doesn’t pay, he’s in for a rude awakening with William Friedkin’s The Brink’s Job, produced by Ralph Serpe for Dino De Laurentiis and released by Universal. So is anyone whose admiration for the FBI is based on that old TV series starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Friedkin, assisted by screenwriter Walon Green, is in no mood to create heroes on either side of the law. It may have been his crucial mistake.
Based on Noel Behn’s The Big Stick-Up at Brinks, the film introduces Peter Falk as ringleader of the septet of sharpies and hoods who masterminded the multimillion-dollar burglary. Perhaps “masterminded” isn’t precisely the word. As depicted here, the seven men are brainless and petty crooks who just happened to latch onto the heist of the century. The real culprit, it would seem, was Brink’s, whose lax security made it all possible. (A prim disclaimer at the end of the film notes that “Since 1859 Nobody Has Ever Lost a Penny in Trusting Their Valuables to Brink’s.” Presumably, Brink’s has always been very well insured.)
Friedkin picks up his story in 1938 when, thanks to his bumbling brother-in-law (Allen Goorwitz), Falk is jailed as a common thief. Released, he uses a diner as cover for his continuing thievery, meanwhile recruiting the gang that will enable him to enlarge his operations. With the exception of Peter Boyle, who runs the bar across the street, they are all as lame-brained as he. (Paul Sorvino, a bookmaker, adds some class to the operation, but little in terms of intellectual guidance.)
And then one day, quite by chance, Falk notices how many Brink’s trucks there are on the streets of Boston, and devises a simple — if unlikely — means of breaking into them. Next, the central warehouse, where the money is stored, becomes his objective. He coaches his crew, which couldn’t even rob a bubble-gum factory successfully, and in no time at all they are hysterically in possession of a million and a half dollars. As luck would have it, two of the men (Warren Oates and Kevin O’Connor) are captured by the police on charges unrelated to the Brink’s affair, and one of them (Oates) ultimately squeals on his pals — ironically, within a few days of when the statute of limitations would run out.
Unquestionably, there is a good story here — as Universal itself demonstrated some years ago in Seven Bridges to Cross. But Friedkin has failed to tell it. As in Sorcerer, far too much time is devoted to the preamble, to setting up the characters. And yet we are still left very much in doubt as to Friedkin’s own attitude toward them. Are we supposed to admire Falk for his street cunning, as his wife (Gena Rowlands) all too obviously does? And is Sorvino a great guy just because he airily dismisses his share in the great bubble-gum robbery, which netted about $13? For that matter, are we to conclude that Boyle is the serpent in the larcenous garden because he flushed down the toilet $50,000 in easily-traceable, consecutively numbered bills?
If Friedkin never provides a proper prospective on his protagonists, he makes it all too clear how he feels about J. Edgar Hoover (Sheldon Leonard). He makes him a pompous ass, spending over $25 million of the taxpayers’ money in a vain attempt to recover the Brink’s loot because he feels that it is all a Communist plot. The working over that his minions administer to O’Connor is even less endearing.
The Brink’s Job comes off as a black comedy with a sour, misplaced sense of humor. Falk also seems misplaced, exhibiting many of his familiar Columbo shticks in a role that has nothing whatsoever to do with Columbo. Sorvino is smooth as a gentlemanly bookie, although one constantly wonders why he ever bothered to hook up with this bunch of losers; while Boyle reminded me of nothing so much as the late Donald Crisp beating up on Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. On the other hand, Oates, as a prisoner pushed to the breaking point by the FBI, earned a well-deserved round of applause from Tuesday’s preview audience.
Helpful, too, was the production design of Dean Tavoularis, capturing the look of Boston’s back streets from the late ’30s up to the present; the steely-blue of A. Norman Leigh’s photography, like an urban Wyeth, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, which skillfully blended his own music with the glad sounds of popular records from the appropriate periods. But none of this is enough to compensate for the basic lack of involvement that comes when the director himself has failed to define his own feelings about the people he is asking us to love, hate or, at the very least, understand. — Arthur Knight, originally published on Dec. 7, 1978
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