A favourite film to lighten the dark nights; Aram Avakian’s 1974 heist movie was a great BBC1 Sunday night movie in my teenage years, and looks better and better with the passing of time. Ripe for a remake, it’s a handsome adaptation of a novel by Gerard A Browne, and fuses a number of disparate elements into a highly enjoyable caper; whether you like clever plots, romance, sardonic voice-overs, big stars, British countryside, or exuberant car-chases, there’s something here for everyone, as well as hand-painted cockroaches. What have you got to lose?
Howard Chesser, played by Charles Grodin, is a man with a lot to lose. He’s a diamond merchant who forms a two-person team with his girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen), looking impossibly chic in a boiler-suit and flat-cap. Their goal is to rob the heavily fortressed premises at 11 Harrowhouse, where a vault known as The System contains a small fortune in jewels. Chesser is in hock to a criminal war-hero, played by Trevor Howard, after losing some precious diamonds, and the only way he can get out of trouble is to pull off a truly impossible heist. That Chesser and Maren complete their task without entering the building is one of the beguiling narrative tricks here; let’s just say that a hand-painted cockroach has its uses.
The inside man character is something of a cliché, but James Mason manages to make something genuinely moving as Charles Watts, employed by Meecham (John Gielgud) to work the vault but ready to default to protect his family from the consequences of his impending death. So often this kind of sentimental detail is handled badly and jars against the film’s mechanism, but Mason’s dignified performance gives 11 Harrowhouse real heart; ‘There is something to being human’ is a key, repeated line. Remarkably, Grodin wrote his own voice-over here, and there’s plenty of funny and original observations that often puncture and counter-point the on-screen activity, as in Alexander Payne’s Election. And the car action is superbly done by an outfit called 99 Cars, who manage to fling vans, Lotus sports vans and more through the countryside air to create an exciting finale as Chesser and Maren commandeer various vehicles to escape from the confines of a country-house estate; a nice twist is that all the super-cool drivers involved are women.
To seal the deal? The music; Michael L Lewis, who composed the luscious score for Theatre of Blood, does the honours here, and there’s also a chance to hear Long Live Love from seminal UK easy-listening duo Peters and Lee. The song plays as Chesser and Maren are immobilised in her car with dart tranquilisers, and has a certain iconic, ironic frisson. In fact, this whole film has wit, panache, and bonhomie to spare; the surprising thing is that critics and audiences didn’t take to this romp, released with and without a voice–over to little applause. 11 Harrowhouse is cheap and cheerful on Amazon Prime right now, and this breezy, anarchic film is the perfect antidote to today’s grim lockdown times. Trailer and link below.