Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: 11 HARROW HOUSE (1974)

Directed by: Aram Avakian (Don Westlake's COPS & ROBBERS).
Written by: Jeffrey Bloom and Charles Grodin based on the novel by Gerald A. Browne.
Starring: Charles Grodin, Candice Bergen, James Mason, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud.
Produced by: Elliot Kastner (every 70s crime film plus WHERE EAGLES DARE).
Edited by: Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to OUT OF SIGHT).

This is one of my favorite films that you’ve never heard of, and I have the poster framed (though not on my wall right now, not enough space). It’s an odd film, a sixties style caper movie made in the 70s and starring Charles Grodin who couldn’t really open a movie. Probably the main reason for the movie is that it is based on a best selling novel by Gerald A. Browne who wrote a bunch of breezy caper books that everyone took to the beach to read in the 70s and 80s. Only a couple ended up on screen, this one and another film that wasn’t a hit GREEN ICE starring Ryan O’Neal and Anne Archer. I read a bunch of his books, which always dealt with gemstones and were usually fun caper stories against a glamourous background... with a bit of conspiracy theory thrown in. They’re kind of Cary Grant movies. The combination of comedy and crime is probably what attracted me to the books and this movie. I had not seen it since it was released, but thanks to those wonderful folks at Shout Video I now have it on DVD and have watched it a couple of times. It’s an acquired taste sort of thing, and a flawed film whether you like it or not.

The story gets off to a great start with an unconscious man under a doctor’s care on an airplane, headed to a hospital for life saving surgery. He is taken off the plane and loaded into an ambulance, the doctor hops in back, and the ambulance speeds off. A Man watches all of this, and smiles. In the back of the ambulance, the unconscious man sits up, and he and the doctor open a secret compartment in his medical bag where a bunch of smuggled diamonds are hidden... Then the ambulance is blown to smithereens!

That Man is an enforcer from 11 Harrowhouse in London, the secret organization which controls diamonds throughout the world. The Diamond Exchange. In order to keep the price up, only so many diamonds are allowed out in the world. Every diamond ever bought or sold starts with a raw diamond from 11 Harrowhouse. They are the conspiracy theory part of the story.

Howard Chesser (Charles Grodin) is at the bottom of the list of diamond buyers from 11 Harrowhouse, he’s a smart ass American who doesn’t know how to dress (his suits are not from one of the approved tailors) and he’s, well, common. There’s a great little scene where he lights a cigarette in the waiting room and the receptionist *wordlessly* stares at him until he puts it out. When it’s his turn, Meechum (Sir John Gielgud) who is in charge, insults Chesser and gives him very few raw diamonds at an outrageous price... and since this is a conspiracy/monopoly, Chesser has no choice but to buy them. The vault manager who does the diamond handling, Watts (James Mason), apologizes to Chesser for his treatment. Watts is the only one at the company who isn’t a prick.

Chesser complains to his girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) about how they treat him, and she suggests: “My money is your money, if you have to be humiliated, be humiliated with me.” She’s the widow of a formula one driver and rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams... but he doesn’t want to be a kept man. Oh, and if they get married? She loses all of the money.

The next day they are walking down a dark and spooky pedestrian tunnel and are attacked by two men... who subdue them and then give them an *invitation* to meet with the UK’s wealthiest man Massey (Trevor Howard) who made much of his money from oil. Massey lives on an estate the size of a state, where all of his servants are mutes so that they won’t blab to the press. Except for the security force, which is kind of a private army. Massey would like to hire Chesser to purchase and have cut a huge diamond that will be named after him... because when you already have everything, why not have a diamond named after you? Chesser agrees, buys the raw diamond at Harrowhouse and takes it to Amsterdam to be cut by the world’s best diamond cutter. But on the road to Massey’s estate to deliver the diamond, Chesser and Maren are attacked by a pair of thugs and the diamond stolen. Those thugs look a lot like members of Massey’s security detail. But Chesser is over a barrel... and Massey convinces him to rob 11 Harrowhouse of *everything*. To keep the price of diamonds high, they keep a large percentage off the market in the vault deep underground. Impossible to get in or out... so how do you steal anything from this vault?

The film’s tagline is intriguing...

This is like no robbery you've ever imagined.
THE CHALLENGE: Steal 12 billion dollars in uncut diamonds.
THE TASK: Break into the most securely guarded fortress devised by man.
THE PLAN: Use amateurs armed with ingenuity, guts, a cockroach, a thin cord, and a vacuum cleaner.
THE RISK: Death.

Wait... a cockroach and a vacuum cleaner?

And now we get to the fun part where Chesser approaches vault manager Watts who has always been kind to him, and tries to hint around that he’d like Watts to betray the Diamond Exchange and 11 Harrowhouse... while Watts is hinting around that the company is screwing him and he’d do anything to get revenge. Watts has been working for the company for 29 years, and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Problem is, the Diamond Exchange will *not* provide his family with any pension if he fails to work for the company for 30 years. His doctors say he probably won’t last that long. His family will be penniless. If he can screw over the Diamond Exchange *and* provide for his family? He’s in.

Chesser comes up with a plan, but the great thing about this film is you know it will take the cockroach and vacuum cleaner and the thin cord... but have no idea how those items will be used. And that’s the fun!

The caper is lots of fun, with Chesser a complete scaredy cat and Maren an insane risk taker and Watts getting a very dignified revenge. Lots of suspense, too: from guards doing their rounds to Chesser almost falling off the roof to Watts over exerting himself and almost passing out during the middle of the burglary. Some great sight gags as Maren chills champagne in 12 billion worth of diamonds while munching of a carrot. A caper film is all about how clever the scheme is to get past all of these impossible obstacles, and this movie takes you step by step through how they do it using those items. The vault that is impossible to steal from, and the insanely clever plan that allows them to empty it.

But after they have successfully stolen every diamond from that underground vault at 11 Harrowhouse, they now have to figure out how to get their money from Massey for delivering the *truck full* of diamonds. Their plan is to hide the truck on a building site among a bunch of other trucks and heavy equipment, and take a satchel with a sample of the diamonds to Massey’s estate. Massey is a man who cheats at *dog shows*. Impossible to trust him.

And this proves to be the right choice, as Massey and his private army try to steal the satchel of diamonds from them and get them to tell where the rest are; which leads to a massive car chase on the grounds of the estate and some shoot outs and explosions and other Act 3 stuff. The tone is often a little weird here, as they go for a fun romp action feel... but people are trapped in cars that go over a cliff and explode.

That inconsistent tone is one of the issues with the film, along with post production voice over with Grodin quipping about what happens on screen. The VO was actually one of my favorite parts when I first saw it, as it gives the whole things a 40s private eye movie feel... and also does what the movie PULP does so well: gives us tough guy patter when the film shows the protag being anything *but* tough. The scene in the dark pedestrian tunnel has Grodin getting the crap beaten out of him and collapsing, as the VO says “Lucky for him he let me go, in another minute I would have had him”. Some great laughs. Now the VO seems obviously added after some terrible test screening, though it is still amusing. This was obviously Grodin’s baby, he cowrote the script and stars... and it’s too bad this didn’t rocket him to stardom. But maybe if he had become a big star, he wouldn’t have been cast as second banana in MIDNIGHT RUN?

11 HARROWHOUSE is an acquired taste, but if you love sixties caper movies (and great British casts) it’s worth a look. I like it despite all of it’s problems.


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1 comment:

Lee Matthias said...

I just bought the agent's (the late Paul Kohner's) copy of this script in an auction. Always liked the movie.

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