After the austerity of his early 70s output, William Friedkin took a breath with The Brink’s Job, a heist film based on a real crime – the Great Brink’s Robbery in Boston in 1950, when almost three million dollars was stolen by an eleven-member gang, in what was dubbed the “crime of the century” by the American media. In Friedkin’s version this becomes a spiritual sequel to The Night They Raided Minsky’s – a tribute to the can-do optimism of America in the wake of the Great Depression, and the first great wave of sound films that came out of that milieu. While the screenplay is ostensibly set during the 1950s, the décor, costume design and general ambience has much more in common with the New Hollywood films that looked back at the 30s from the vantage point of the 70s – the recession contemplating the depression – along with the same sense for urban blight and desuetude. Many of the backdrops here could be just as easily set in the 70s and the 30s, as Friedkin traces out the residues of classical Hollywood in the New Hollywood present, evoking a world where crime intermingle fluidly with every facet of life. Above and beyond the crime narrative, Friedkin beautifully curates spaces that seem to hang, suspended, between the urban decay of past and present, but never opts for bleakness per se, instead offering a cosy counterpoint to his other 70s work.
Much of that cosiness stems from Peter Falk’s performance as Tony Pino, the small-time criminal who convinces his crew (played by Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield and Warren Oates) to rob the Brink’s bank, while also trying to get his relationship with his wife Mary (Gena Rowlands) back on track. The first follows Tony’s team as they try to find a grift against the textures of mass consumption, starting with an abattoir heist that sees them lying on sides of beef, sliding down a chute into a trough of viscera, and eventually taking shelter in a poultry shed where the feathers stick to their bodies. From there, we follow them to an attempted robbery at a bubblegum factory, where they open a door to greet a mountain of gobstoppers sliding down upon them, and accidentally set off the machinery so that it starts to produce gum at an alarming rate. These industrial backdrops translate the man-machine agon of Sorcerer into a more comic and picaresque register, often recalling the ingenious slapstick of silent cinema, while paving the way for a central set piece that is largely conducted in silence.
This is, of course, the heist on Brink’s, which we first glimpse in one of the suspended spaces between present and past that Friedkin does so well. After scoping out the Boston Historical Society as a potential target, Tino comes across Brink’s, which prevents this historical point of reference from congealing too dramatically, by taking us from the period details of the film into a more notional and hypothetical heist space that could exist in a heist film of any era. Yet this heist space also differs from most others in that it doesn’t pose any real logistical challenges – it’s easy for Tino to break in, easy to move through, easy to copy the key, and easy to move money out of while the guards are absent and asleep. The crew only need a couple of weeks of surveillance to get a handle on every individual guard’s movements, since every significant component of the interior is visible from nearby buildings. When Tino brings his crew in for the first time, he jokingly tells them that they need to crawl along the floor to avoid security detection, but the joke is on him when one of his men realizes that even the door in the interior chain-link fence has been left open. Prior to this, Tino had scaled the fence, assuming the door was locked, so he’s agog when his sidekick simply opens it and walks in.
So low-key is this heist that it eventually turns into a safe-cracking exercise, since there are no significant security impediments between the front door and the safe lock. To some extent, this displaces the regular challenges of the heist – getting access to the heart of the space – and turns it into a full-on affront on the safe, which tends to be framed as a pair of military operations. First, the crew use bazookas to blow open the safe, and then they use grenades to disarm the alarm panel, effectively treating the safe like a tank that requires an “armour-piercing shell” to defeat it. Whereas typical heist films focus on the craft and professionalism of the heist team, The Brink’s Job thus focuses on a motley crew who haven’t had the chance to acquire these skills, and so fall back upon a more picaresque and direct confrontation with Boston’s wealth, most of which circulates through Brink’s at some point.
In other words, the Brink’s team are a genuinely working-class heist outfit, falling back upon opportunity and force, rather than the professionalized ingenuity of more middle-class operatives. As such, they don’t need their “professional” skill sets to be ratified by the rest of the crew, or by the public at large, meaning they’re a considerably more relaxed and chilled-out outfit than most crews – a group of friends who enjoy each other’s company so much that this is perhaps the ultimate slacker heist as well, even or especially when they start their military assault on the safe, which is over before it begs. And that turns them into folk heroes, “exciting the imagination of the youth of America,” as the exploding safe spills money back into the city and carnivalesquely confounds its hierarchies, like the moment at the end of Minsky’s when burlesque finally transforms into striptease. As crowds and media mob Brink’s before the police can secure of scene, Friedkin gathers this kinetic energy into a montage sequence of newreels, radios, cartoon pages and newspapers, before segueing into actual historical footage, and then a series of adolescents debating and discussing the crime outside the courthouse, while the four men refuse to give each other up to the police on the inside.
Formally, the final scene here is almost identical to that of Minsky’s, since once again a series “criminals” are brought to justice – the heist participants to the police house, Britt Ekland’s character to the police van – even as Friedkin intensifies the spectatorship and fandom of these figures to such an extent that their acts exceed whatever legal consequences await them, and instead impart their intensity to the film itself and the audience watching it. As with Minsky’s, then, Friedkin aims to craft an event that as vital as these cinematically-infused media events of the Golden Age of Hollywood, although The Brink’s Job is perhaps less pointed than Minsky’s, more content to just bask in the radiance of this ultra-cinematic, more confident of its continuity with the New Hollywood present at this considerably later moment in Friedkin’s career. And, like Minsky’s, The Brink’s Job remains one of Friedkin’s most underrated efforts, almost invisible in discussions of his canon, and from Falk’s body of work too, despite its clear allusions to Columbo – a bit like experiencing Columbo from the other side of the law, with all the cheeky fun and picaresquely charming transgression that entails.