Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Just Look At The Pictures
It was maybe about an hour into THE BRINK’S JOB that I was finally able to stop looking at it as a William Friedkin film and just take it as a low-key heist picture, a sort of romp. A good time, no big deal, nothing to get too worked up over, but still enjoyable. So I decided to watch it a second time and…again, I found myself thinking of it as a William Friedkin film. But since this is Friedkin we’re talking about, somebody who there are certain expectations of, that’s not really that much of a surprise. His portrayal of process, of how something comes together, something he places over character and maybe even clarity of tone--it’s the sort of thing we expect from the guy and when it’s something as breezy as this film is it’s tough to know what to make of it. Released in December 1978, it’s easy to imagine that for the director the project was a chance to reign in his stylistic extremes after the box-office failure of the remarkable but financially disappointing SORCERER, to prove to the money men that he could be a good boy and give the people a movie they’d want to see. The result may be kind of a lark, but that’s not to completely disregard it. It goes for finding some kind of middle ground between the goofiness you might expect from the poster (Funny heist movie with Peter Falk!) and the intense Friedkin experience that we would anticipate, so even if it just sort of winds up hovering over some middle ground in the end, it’s still a fairly enjoyable ride.
Based on a true story and set in Boston mostly during the post-war years, THE BRINK’S JOB follows small time Boston crook Tony Pino (Peter Falk) who almost accidentally stumbles onto the knowledge that the security in the world famous Brink’s security company isn’t as strong as people would have thought. Once he and his gang pull off a minor Brink’s truck heist which doesn’t turn up in the papers, their curiosity is piqued and as they explore the company’s security further they decide to go for what may be the biggest score of all time.
It’s pretty mild stuff which is a particular surprise coming from somebody like Friedkin who doesn’t seem to have a lighthearted bone in his body, let alone an actual sense of humor that would aid in possibly directing actors delivering comic performances. THE BRINK’S JOB is a very slight picture, continually seeming like it’s going to build into something more than it is but never does. The stripped down nature of the storytelling which avoids blatant exposition does actually feel like Friedkin, maybe more than anything else here, but it’s certainly not something that aims for any amount of ambiguity or disorientation like his other films do. Everything is pretty much presented to us in a clear manner, with very few digressions that someone else might have incorporated to make it more of a character piece or even an outright comedy—giving us Peter Falk in the lead it almost manages to become that anyway considering how much enjoyment the actor brings to every single line reading. With a screenplay by Walon Green (who also wrote SORCERER, not to mention being one of the screenwriters on THE WILD BUNCH) from the novel “Big Stickup at Brinks” by Noel Behn THE BRINK’S JOB maintains a straight ahead style much of the time keeping the dialogue for the actors at ground level, with just what we see and hear used to maintain the buildup and no more. There’s some very good Boston flavor that comes from the location work and that’s about as much meat as we ever get from it.
To keep the upbeat tempo going we get a bouncy music score by Richard Rodney Bennett that helps make it all more of a romp than anything (the old standard “Accentuate the Positive" is heard a few times as well), never going for a tone as serious as RIFIFI (or even 2008’s terrific THE BANK JOB, also based on a true story) but not a total piece of fluff (like, say, TOPKAPI or either version of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR) either. If anything it feels like just about the director’s most user-friendly film, a deliberate step back from the storytelling extremes he had toyed with in the past in order to make something that might appeal to everybody. Someone better than I am is going to have to figure out an auteurist link from THE BRINK’S JOB to those other films but it feels like such a thing wasn’t the idea behind this film anyway, the brief fight that takes place at an elevated subway station aside. There’s no real ambiguity, no particular portrayal of obsession since the job is just portrayed as what these guys naturally do and no drastic disorientation for the viewer beyond the question of why it takes them so long to plan for the heist (which I’m admittedly fuzzy on—it feels like we’re in 1944, then suddenly it’s 1950 with no real explanation). With the possible exception of THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, which also barely seems to count, it’s as close to a lark as the director has ever made. The question, of course, might be that if William Friedkin isn’t going to be challenging or openly trying to piss us off in portraying an insane display of the dregs of humanity, then shouldn’t we just get somebody else to direct this thing? I don’t really have the answer to that one.
Nothing all that bad ever happens to the characters—it’s not a movie where the guys kill each other over the money or the mob coming after them to get it, after all—so ultimately there’s nothing to really build to other than a feeling of “Hey, whaddya gonna do?” Maybe that’s all they wanted it to be. The FBI in the person of none other than Sheldon Leonard playing J. Edgar Hoover comes into play, heralded by a bouncy official fanfare that could have come from an old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS sketch and I suppose it portrays the bureau as coming to greater power in order to crack these cases—if the movie is meant to be ‘about’ anything, I suppose it’s to show us the one last time in history when small-timers could have possibly pulled off this kind of heist, crooks who are also nice guys that don’t want to scare old ladies to death when they rob a place. They’re too stupid to know how crazy what they want to do is but also smart enough to figure out the holes in the system to get it done, holes that were placed there by the cocky establishment represented by the Brink’s company who would never have imagined that somebody would actually try to do this. At one point, Hoover gravely states “This could be the most dangerous conspiracy that’s ever threatened this nation,” then we naturally cut to a few of the crooks doing something totally mundane and unthreatening. From the way the shot is staged it’s not even clear that Friedkin knows the joke that’s supposed to go there anyway but it’s still a nice moment.
THE BRINK’S JOB isn’t really a completely lighthearted caper and it’s not a grim crime film either. It’s enjoyable in a mellow kind of way but maybe not much more than that. By the end it feels like the movie gradually arrives at its conclusion as opposed to actually climaxing—you can almost imagine someone going to the bathroom not worried about missing anything, then when they return the credits are suddenly rolling. It does feel like something is missing which may indeed be the case—running times of both 118 minutes and 103 minutes have been listed (the film remains unreleased on DVD but the version running on HBO lately has the shorter length). The film’s editor Bud Smith (who also cut SORCERER and CRUISING) is quoted in Laurent Bouzereau’s book “The Cutting Room Floor” as saying that they “made the mistake of taking out fifteen minutes of the film,” with no elaboration, which might account for the vague feeling of incompleteness in the end, that there wasn’t very much to all this. Ultimately, THE BRINK’S JOB is just about the most pleasant heist movie ever, maybe even moreso than BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET, and it’s all the more surprising considering who made the thing. But maybe that was exactly what he had in mind. It doesn’t leave you with much in the end, but it’s a pleasant enough way to not get somewhere in a hurry.
Peter Falk, no surprise, is always terrific to watch when bouncing off his other actors and this part fits him like a glove so much it feels like he might have slept on the sets when everyone else went home at night. The bounce he brings to every movement he makes winds up responsible for much of the jaunty feel that the movie gives off. The character is believably not the sharpest tool in the shed but, since he’s somebody who doesn’t “just look at the pictures” when he reads comic books, he knows enough to put this plan together. His big speech where he casually spits out his philosophies of how he wants to approach life doesn’t feel totally out of place coming from him as a result. The supporting cast including Allen Garfield (billed as Allen Goorwitz in this, the third straight film featuring him on this site. Make it stop!), Peter Boyle (in his second straight film on this site), Paul Sorvino and the great Warren Oates are all fun to watch, with Oates in particular elevating his part beyond what we would have expected at first glance. Gena Rowlands is sort of wasted as Falk’s wife (it’s easy to guess that she was cast just because they were friends) but she’s a strong enough actress to make us believe that she supports her guy in what he does no matter what. It’s Gena Rowlands, so even if she gets just a few moments they wind up mattering.
When you come right down to it, it’s hard not to look at THE BRINK’S JOB as a William Friedkin movie that involves a slapstick sequence in a gumball factory, but it’s not really as wild as that makes it sound. If I sound a little flummoxed by the whole thing then maybe that’s because I’m looking for something that really isn’t there, something to tell me why William Friedkin directed this beyond that it seemed like a good idea at the time. It probably was. You’re not going to tell me that this is a bad film, just a mild one that never goes full throttle on any level. There’s still some fun stuff in there and thought the slightly screwy take on the material doesn’t linger in the brain when the film is done it’s still nice to have around while it’s there.