Tuesday, January 22, 2008
The Best Way to Shoot Yourself
The 1974 11 HARROWHOUSE seems to be unknown by most people which puzzles me slightly, since it plays exactly like the sort of movie which would have been shown all the time by Channel 5 in New York back in the day. Unfortunately I have no recollection of ever flipping past the film and it seems to be forgotten. Except, of course, by Quentin Tarantino who on the DVD commentary track for HOT FUZZ tells Edgar Wright that when he met Candice Bergen he told her he loved her in 11 HARROWHOUSE. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Everything they say about you is true.” Now that I’ve seen it, I guess this means I’ll have to come up with another opening line in case Bergen and I ever meet.
The fairly simple plot involves diamond merchant Howard Chessner (Charles Grodin) and his girlfriend Maren Shirell (Bergen) who are blackmailed by multi-millionaire Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) to pull off a heist at the London Diamond Exchange, an well-guarded office run by the unscrupulous taskmaster Meecham, played by John Gielgud. Chessner finds an unlikely ally in Charles Watts (James Mason), an employee of the Exchange who has terminal cancer and is not expected to live long enough to cover the pension needed by his family. Looking to exact revenge, Watts is all-too willing to help out with the crime. As indicated on the poster, a cockroach painted red turns out to be crucial to the crime.
The whole thing is pretty light stuff, even as far as light entertainments go, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing how some parts of the heist turn out. Checking around the internet, I’m surprised to learn that there are two separate versions of 11 HARROWHOUSE in existence, one which contains a voice-over narration by Grodin’s character and one without. The version I saw, a pretty ancient Playhouse Video cassette, contains no narration. Reviews on IMDB which have seen both versions seem to feel that removing Grodin’s commentary kills most of the humor. I could actually believe this, since Grodin’s lax screen presence doesn’t really do much for the film. He’s never given the chance to display the sort of memorable character he provided in films ranging from THE HEARTBREAK KID to MIDNIGHT RUN. I love Charles Grodin, but he just seems out of place in a Cary Grant-type role. Taking a look at his autobiography “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here” (an event during location shooting at a castle inspired the title) sheds some light on the narration and even Grodin, who says he was trying to play a character entirely different from his HEARTBREAK KID persona, felt he came off as too laid-back as well. He claims that when the narration was added, the response from audiences was much better, but he never sheds any light on why there are apparently two versions in circulation nor does he even talk about his own work on the script outside of the voiceover which seems to have resulted in the odd screen credit “Written by Jeffrey Bloom, Adaptation by Charles Grodin”. I enjoyed 11 HARROWHOUSE, but it does play a little dry and it’s easy to imagine that the narration being reinstated would help things.
Whatever dramatic heft the film does have is provided by James Mason’s meek employee who, once his situation is revealed, fully has us on his side and rooting for him. It’s a little like if Carl Reiner’s health scare in OCEAN’S ELEVEN didn’t turn out to be merely part of the heist. For some reason I kept picturing Cybill Shepherd playing Bergen’s role but I have to admit she does make for a striking figure when she and Grodin are in the middle of target practice and considering she’s introduced speeding out of control down the highway in a convertible with a copy of the I Ching next to her, it’s hard to imagine anyone else at the wheel. She’s definitely a fetching cohort to pull off a heist with. The opposite natures of the two elder statesmen in charge are ideal, with John Gielgud ideally officious as the head of the exchange and Trevor Howard is enjoyably off-kilter as the millionaire behind the scheme (so help me, I kept thinking of Kyrpton Elder he played in SUPERMAN during his scenes).
If 11 HARROWHOUSE got some play on cable it would probably be a nice surprise to people. Even better would be a DVD release that contained both versions and maybe an interview with Grodin. He seems to express ambivalence towards it in his book but the film plays like it’s deserving of an audience and certainly is entitled to have the correct version out there in circulation. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see it sometime.