Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Take (So To Speak) On "The Brink's Job"

I saw this movie on one of the Encore cable channels over the weekend. It was an oldie-but-goodie about a Boston crime that was itself an oldie-but-goodie, the notorious Brink's robbery of January 1950 in which the perps made off with $2,775,395. I'm pretty certain there have been way bigger robberies since, but imagine what nearly three million in 1950 simoleons would be worth now, if we adjusted for inflation. The eight principal players in the robbery were nabbed in 1956, and thereafter sent to jail, but they were all paroled by 1971 - and only $58,000 of the loot was ever recovered. The implication - and the madcap note of optimism on which the movie ends - is that the perps retired on the dough after prison and lived "comfortably" for the rest of their lives. Which could not have been forever really, as most of these guys were in their forties when they committed the crime.

William Friedkin, of French Connection fame, directed the movie and the cast was stellar. Peter Falk, whom I thought until his obituary came out was some kind of Irish-Italian mix, was actually a Jewish guy from Chicago who made a living playing Italian dudes - sort of the way James Woods, who is himself an Irish Catholic born in Pawtucket, has made a living playing Jewish guys. But here, too, Falk plays an Italian - an immigrant from Sicily named Tony Pino. The incomparable Warren Oates plays Specs O'Keefe, the demolition expert whose 1955 arrest in Springfield, Mass. on a gun charge led to the final apprehension of the other guys. Sadly, Oates, despite his performance, is totally unconvincing as a Boston native. I mean, I've never met anybody who was born here who talked like he came from Louisville, Kentucky. Paul Sorvino puts in a serviceable performance as the kind of well-spoken and dapper (but still fat) dude that he usually plays. Peter Boyle reprises the sinister-fixer-behind-the-scenes role that he played in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Interestingly, Frank McCourt's brother, Malachy McCourt, puts in a fine cameo as a patriarchal suburban money launderer, and Gena Rowlands - like Falk, another actor with experience in Cassavetes films about husbands and wives - here plays wife to Falk's husband, common-law or otherwise.

The movie was a fun exercise in mid-20th century Boston nostalgia, but little else. There was more comedy than suspense. It had more the feel of an all-star caper film made in the early 1960's than of something made in 1978. I know, 1978 seems like ages ago - very nearly the Cretaceous period of American life - but stop to consider that movies like Thief with James Caan and Scarface with Al Pacino were made just three years and five years later, respectively. And what about Bonnie and Clyde, made in 1967, or that creepily edgy Tony Curtis film, The Boston Strangler, made in 1968? Both precede The Brink's Job by at least a decade and seem infinitely more modern. Not to mention The Friends of Eddie Coyle itself from 1973 or Friedkin's own The French Connection. All of these films resonate with serious thoughts about the consequences of criminal activity that are nowhere in evidence in The Brink's Job. Virtually all of the characters behave like regular guys who would never hurt a fly. It's implicit that their criminality was a scrappy response to Depression-era poverty, not a result of their being "bent" or because their parents abused them or whatever. Most of them come across as reasonably clever dudes who, if they'd been born a generation or two later, would have gone to U.Mass. and ended up respectable and prosperous and even law-abiding citizens. Even the prospect of these guys serving another 14 years in the joint is glossed over merrily, as if that would pass in an instant, what with all the loot they have to look forward to afterward.

I think the target audience of this movie was not Baby Boomers, still a skeptical and rebellious bunch in 1978, but their parents - the Greatest Generation. They would have actual memories of the Brink's robbery, and of the time it portrayed. This fun little movie about lovable mooks - all middle-aged white guys, you notice - who commit felonies without malevolence was meant as a sop to conservative tastes. The same kind of folks for whom Dirty Harry and Death Wish were made, but aimed at that crowd from an entirely different angle. The real tip-off comes when the sound track of the movie ends with an Andrews Sisters hit from the 1940's - not the sort of thing middle-aged thieves would have listened to back then, but definitely the kind of thing that folks who were around 50 in 1978 would have remembered from their youth.

I recommend it to Boston crime buffs nonetheless. It was made largely in Boston, and includes scenes filmed in the North End, Roxbury, the Combat Zone, and various other downtown locales.

(Odd factoid: According to Wikipedia, the makers of the film were ripped off while it was being made: "Ironically, in August 1978, 15 unedited reels of the film were stolen at gunpoint. The robbers demanded a $600,000 ransom. The money was never paid, because the robbers, showing a distinct lack of filmmaking knowledge, hijacked outtakes and dailies, positive prints of negatives were being held by Technicolor in New York City. The material was replaced with no significant delay. The robbers, however, made a ransom call, which triggered an investigation by the FBI. During the ransom call, Friedkin told the robbers to 'get a projector and enjoy the film; it was all theirs'.")

The Brink's Job (Wikipedia)
Great Brink's Robbery (Wikipedia)
CRIME: The Big Payoff (Time)
Great Brink’s Robbery “Crime of the Century,” 1950 (Looking Backward)
Brinks Job Exhibit (Boston Public Library)

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