"The Brink's Job," opening today at area theaters, is a disgraceful bungle. Director William Friedkin and screen-writer Walon Green decided to portray Tony Pino and his confederates as hopeless buffoons, and the law enforcement officials charged with investigating the Brink's robbery as vicious cretins -- as if in order to camouflage their own ineptitude.

What has happened to Friedkin's once-vaunted manipulative skill? Perhaps the failure of "Sorcerer" shot his confidence, because his "touch" is becoming dreadfully shaky. The crooks who tried to snatch the footage while the movie was shooting on location in Boston may have known more than Friedkin. I like to think that they saw the rushes and realized what an insult the picture would be to the memory of the most famous (and in many respects appealing) stick-up in American criminal history.

Friedkin and Green, who also worked on the calamitous "Sorcerer," are not a slick team. Although Green supposedly worked from Noel Behn's book "Big Stick-Up at Brink's!," a definitive, richly entertaining account of the case, the continuity in "The Brink's Job" is a shambles.

Behn, an experienced screenwriter himself, recreated the planning, execution and aftermath of the robbery with a skill that made you eager to see a film version. Adroitly distilled and enhanced by an amusing cast, the movie promised to be a natural.

While creating a suspenseful, humorous exposition, Behn also respected the characters of the people involved. The robbers emerged as a fascinating collection of incorrigible, dedicated Boston crooks. The most colorful of them all was Tony Pino, a burglar, shoplifter, lockpicker, safecracker and sometimes armed robber who masterminded and directed the theft of $2.7 million from a Brink's vault room in the North Terminal Garage in Boston on the night of Jan. 17, 1950.

The movie substitutes pratfalls, Abbott & Costello bickering and puerile mockery for the book's ironic chronicle of an epic criminal passion whose achievement demanded prodigious work and dedication from several interesting people on both sides of the law. Pino put as much into the Brink's job as an artist struggling to perfect a new composition or a scientist a new discovery. It was a six-year passion that ultimately cost him a 14-year stretch in the pen, but it was still his masterpiece.

It's partly the sense of Pino's enormous effort that makes the book's account of his caper appealing. In addition, the Brink's job inspires a widespread sneaky satisfaction because it exposed the myth of a supposedly impregnable, infallible security system. After several weeks of meticulous breaking-and-entering at the North Terminal Garage, Pino discovered that Brink's was actually economizing by using the cheapest, least effective locks and alarms.

At the movie you never feel as if you're sharing in a historic furtive adventure. Even the robbery itself is depicted clumsily, treated as more of an incidental throwaway sequence than the highlight of the story. The only semblance of style originates in production designer Dean Tavoularis.

The approach to the gang members is typified by a safecracking sequence in which Allen Goorwitz (the former Allen Garfield, who has retrieved his original surname) as Vinnie, the brother-in-law of Tony Pino (impersonated by Peter Falk as his inimitable self), opens a cabinet obviously filled with gumballs and is engulfed by them. The robbers are systematically depicted as incompetent jerks, presumably to enhance the "joke" of their pulling off a big robbery.

To overcompensate for this facetious distortion of the crooks, Friedkin and Green depict the cops and feds as narrow-eyed brutes who break the case by beating suspects. The definitive "jest" here is the casting of Sheldon Leonard as J. Edgar Hoover. Although Leonard now looks as if he might get away with a Runyonesque impersonation of Richard Nixon, he's more farfetched as Hoover than poor Broderick Crawford.