Judge Chris Claro hears London calling, but he'll let the voicemail get it.
Diamonds are a thief's best friend.
Back in the '70s, before they became the star-laden parade floats that they are today, heist movies were sleek vehicles of efficiency. Working solo (The Thief Who Came to Dinner), in pairs (Cops and Robbers), or as a quartet (The Hot Rock), pre-21st century thieves didn't need eleven, twelve, or thirteen compadres to take down their marks. (And the Ocean's Eleven wave seems to have carried in yet another overstuffed whopper, with Brett Ratner's currently-filming Tower Heist, filled to the gills with another gaggle of above-the-title heisters, including Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, and Matthew Broderick.)
In 1974, director Aram Avakian (Jazz on a Summer's Day), followed up the laconic comic action of the aformentioned Cops and Robbers—in which the former, played by Joseph Bologna and Cliff Gorman, become the latter, stealing bearer bonds for a mob boss—with 11 Harrowhouse. Originally a film editor, Avakian's directing career was only five films long, and this London-set heist starring Charles Grodin and Candice Bergen would turn out to be the director's swan song.
Facts of the Case
Howard Chesser (Charles Grodin, Midnight Run) is a low-level American diamond merchant working in London. When a large-scale transaction goes awry, Chesser is forced into a larcenous arrangement with oil magnate Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard, Gandhi): clean out the inventory of "The System," a heavily fortified gem dealer located at 11 Harrowhouse.
All heist flicks require some suspension of disbelief—the intricate timing and split-second reflexes required to filch a stone simply don't exist in the real world—but 11 Harrowhouse asks its audience to make an even bigger leap: that the eternally bemused, detached, cranky Charles Grodin would be credible as a suave jewel thief. Maybe in 1974, before Grodin became known as the crotchety raconteur egged on by Carson and Letterman, and prior to having his own eponymous cable show, audiences could buy his laconic irony in such a traditional role. But 37 years on, it's hard to believe Grodin as a dashing leading man. Add to his somnolent performance the bargain basement toupee that Grodin insisted on wearing well into the 80s—complete with little bangs to hide the front—and it's difficult to really lose yourself in the characterization.
Not to carp on the acting—a film such as 11 Harrowhouse isn't meant as a showcase for nuance—but let's spend a minute on Candice Bergen's "performance." Actually, let's spend about twenty seconds on it, because it looks like that's how long she took to develop her character. Stunningly beautiful until she opens her mouth, one could call Bergen's acting wooden, but that would be an insult to all the hard-working wood out there.
I'm here all week, tossing out cheap shots at well-established performers! Please tip your waitresses.
In addition to being a throwback to the earlier era of more intimate caper tales, 11 Harrowhouse provides a showcase for some of England's best actors, with appearance from both Sir John Gielgud (Arthur) and James Mason (Heaven Can Wait).
To the credit of Avakian, Grodin, who is credited for the "adaptation," and screenwriter Jeffrey Bloom (Flowers in the Attic), 11 Harrowhouse moves at a brisk clip once its heist is set in motion. While this is where some films start to trip over themselves with overly complicated executions, the wit and simplicity of the diamond heist at the titular location is refreshing.
The film's other setpiece, a post-double cross chase through the English countryside, replete with horses, foxhounds, and vintage sports cars, is swift and scenic. Set to Michael J. Lewis's sprightly score—heavy on the strings, flute, and kettledrum—the scene caps the film with energy, despite the sometimes-laughable line-readings from Grodin and Bergen.
Technically, the widescreen presentation of the film is crisp and free of flaws. The Dolby 2.0 audio is more than sufficient for the film's audio mix, especially when it allows the score to shine through. Though there are no extras except for the film's original trailer, Shout! Factory has reinstated one element that had been missing from the original VHS release of 11 Harrowhouse: a snarky voiceover narration from Grodin's Chesser. As a first-time viewer of the film, I only became aware of this through research, but wondered how the film might play without what I felt were the intrusive comments of the character.
11 Harrowhouse is no masterpiece, nor is it just a time-waster. The vivid locations, well-choreographed action, and appearances by old pros Gielgud, Mason, and Howard make it an enjoyable 94-minute jaunt and compensate for the cipher-like performances of the two stars.
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