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.
Excellent review. I haven’t heard of this one before, which isn’t surprising for older BBC stuff, but it does give off a very Bond/Hunt vibe.
This is one of the buried treasures of cinema; Bond level action, Mission Impossible plotting, and a distinguished cast with some smart dialogue. Well worth seeking out…
just giving you a headsup that I’m taking control of the comments on the poll and doing a bit of editing. You didn’t do anything wrong, imo but the sub-conversation will be gone in about 5 minutes. Cheers.
I hear you! I’m happy to be under the yolk of your leadership!
How good is that trailer?! I’ve never heard of this, thanks for the heads-up. The music in the trailer reminded me a little of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme.
That’s a great shout, I was rewatching the trailer last night, and thinking that it did have the feel of Mission Impossible, but done cinematically, long before Tom Cruise thought of it. This is an easy film to recommend, it’s good, and no-one has heard of it…
Always loved the poster. i was never a great fan of Grodin but he is excellent here and Bergen and Mason put in good turns. I am huge fan of heist movies and they have a lot to live up to – Rififi, Topkapi, Gambit and even How to Steal a Million and often they fail because the heist is not ingenious enough or the situation or characters appear contrived. But that’s not the case here. A great choice.
That’s the yardstick that seperates the dull heist movie from the great ones; is the heist fun to watch? Films like The Italian Job nail it, and this one does too. The method of getting the diamonds out is simple, practical and amusing to see, and the stunt-work would put 70’s Bond to shame, no bad back projection. Grodin at his best here if you get the VO version; he has a droll sense of humour.
Charles Grodin adopted Beethoven. Does he have a big dog in this movie?
No, but he’s got a hand-painted cockroach, and shows all the promise of a man who would later be the perfect foil for a big fluffy dog.
Hm. I think I may just watch Beethoven again. I’ve lived with cockroaches and they’re not as nice.
Romantically, or as a practical pay-the-rent arrangement?
It’s hard to beat a large dog as a companion. Cockroaches, not so much.
Did you live with Beethoven the dog?
Are you in for the Clifford the Big Red Dog reboot?
I did have a Saint as a child. More recently Newfs. I admit I saw the promos for Clifford and I was intrigued. But he’s not a *real* dog.
What? He a big red dog and no mistake!
He looks like CGI flannel to me. When I was a kid we had The Shaggy D.A.
Digby the Biggest Dog in the World was even better
I think you need to have a doggy week of reviews. But not Cujo or Devil Dog — The Hound of Hell. Only nice dogs. And big dogs.
I’ll look into my files…
You had me at “hand painted cockroaches”….
I thought that might be up your street, but it’s not enough to hand-paint them, you have to know just how to use them…
Ehhhh, I like my hand painted cockroaches to sit on a shelf and look pretty. If I wanted them to “do” something, I’d have bought one of those robot vacuums that slide around the house…
Vacuums do feature largely in this film…
Well, this just moved up a peg in my movie watching hierarchy then.
It’s good clean fun, not a cuss word or a hair out of place in this one…suitable for all. How was dinner last night?
WCBombfunk, my bro, made this orange cheesecake. He hasn’t made it in almost 8 years but we all loved it back then and just about died from deliciousness this time around.
Of course, I had to take about triple my usual amount of insulin, but it was totally worth it!
then we watched our cousin’s foster son crawl around like a champ and try to catch the cats. We laughed our heads off 😀
WCBombfunk is quite an unusual name, how did he get that? It he a rapper or a DJ? That’s the only career you can have if that’s your birthname.
He chose that name during Bibleschool as one of his emails. And after he publicly got up on a table wearing flaming hawaian pants and danced, without any alcohol involved, it kind of stuck 😀
Always wondered what went on in bibleschool, I guess when you emerge as WCBombfunk, you’d have to say it was a successful thing to do.
😀 Now he’s a licensed electrician who’s a gun enthusiast. made me proud!
Here’s to WCBombfunk! You know that WC means toilet in the UK? A literal translation would be Toilet-bomb-funk! I nearly Bookstooged my own pants when I read his name!
Ahhh yes, the infamous water closet! I’ve heard some jokes about miscommunications about that abbreviation between yanks and brits.
I shall have to share your insight with him next time I see him. I’m sure he’ll be mightily amused, as I was!
Overall though, I’d say this conversation has gone down the crapper….
Water Closet a much more elegant term…
Yes it is. But not as aptly descriptive as “crapper”
Good actors there, might do the ironing with this one.
There’s the positivity we’re looking for! Great cast, and a movie with all cylinders firing at once.