Sorcerer, currently touring the United States in a new digital restoration, is undoubtedly one of the year’s great rediscoveries, yet the reevaluation of William Friedkin’s filmography is far from complete. Rampage (1987/1992), for instance, remains an obscure item to all but Friedkin completists and serial killer buffs, though it offers more food for thought than most serial killer films. And then there’s The Brink’s Job (1978), Friedkin’s first film after Sorcerer and one of the only comedies he directed post-French Connection. I wouldn’t call it an overlooked masterpiece, but it’s eccentric studio filmmaking of a tall order (not to mention hilarious in spots). It certainly looks like nothing else coming out of Hollywood at present.
If Sorcerer was a reimagining of the French classic The Wages of Fear, The Brink’s Job suggests an American variation on postwar Italian comedies. (Roger Ebert, in his original review, likened it to Big Deal on Madonna Street.) It stars Peter Falk as the ringleader of a group of oafish—yet affectionately realized—blue-collar hoods in late-40s New England. After orchestrating several low-stakes heists, they set out on to rob the headquarters of an armored car company for millions in cash. Apparently this really happened in the early 1950s, though the tone of the first half of the film is so cartoonish that you might take it for pure fiction. Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, and Warren Oates, who play some of the other hoods, seem to have been cast for their unusual physiques and for how they’d look in suits that don’t fit. As in the Marx brothers’ comedies, some of the biggest laughs come from watching these live-action cartoons make their way among normal people. One of the funniest scenes has Falk pinching items from the home of a haute bourgeois type who’s made the mistake of inviting him over—to carry out the goods, Falk wears a coat and trousers several sizes too large, making him look like a little kid in his father’s clothes.
Balancing out the broad humor is Norman Leigh’s downbeat, gray-heavy cinematography and Dean Tavoularis’s meticulous production design. A longtime collaborator of Francis Ford Coppola’s, Tavoularis creates here period environments as immersive as those he designed for The Godfather. The combination of old-school slapstick and realistic settings is as bold as the combination of New Hollywood improvisation and studio-era sets in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, which came out the year before Brink’s Job. (In the movie’s boldest intertextual reference Friedkin casts Gena Rowlands as Falk’s wife, thereby “stealing” some of the dramatic energy from A Woman Under the Influence.) Rather than sustain this paradoxical vibe, the film grows more somber as it goes along, yet Friedkin, with his firm control over tone, doesn’t make the transition seem obvious. In terms of narrative structure, the film is nearly as daring as Sorcerer, which may explain why it remains a neglected misfit of 70s cinema.