11 Harrowhouse

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Misconceived but full of good things, 11 Harrowhouse (sometimes called Fast Fortune) is also a classic example of a film that didn’t do incredibly well at test screenings and then did even less well with real audiences after it was “improved”.

It’s a paranoid screwball heist caper starring Charles Grodin as a smalltime diamond trader who decides to rob a big diamond house situated at 11 Harrowhouse Street in London. This racket run as if it were a venerable institution is headed by one Mr Meecham, or “Sir”, a man played with a curled lip and superciliousness at full blare by John Gielgud. Along for what looks like the sheer hell of it and threatening to steal the entire film from Grodin is Candice Bergen as his cool, rich, liberated, racy, fun-loving, sexy, brave, devil-may-care and did I say rich girlfriend. She drives a Lotus Europa. It’s the early 1970s.

As an employee of the diamond house, James Mason plays one of those diffident guys who does all the work but doesn’t get many of the rewards, on account of his lowly origins – Mason using his native Yorkshire accent here, blunt vowels to the fore. A cartoonish Trevor Howard delivers another polished “bring me my blunderbus” performance as a liverish magnate who hires Grodin’s Howard R Chesser to get him a very large diamond. This commission powers a plot that won’t stand any scrutiny but which does at least eventually deliver a brilliantly conceived, immaculately executed heist sequence which almost saves the film.

The “improvement” added after the test screenings is a laconic voiceover by Chesser. What were the film’s many stylised silences have been filled in with quips and backstory but the new additions undermine the film even more than it’s already undermining itself. Grodin had been a big hit in The Heartbreak Kid two years before and maybe the idea was that his star power would carry the day. But The Heartbreak Kid was directed by Elaine May and written by Neil Simon and 11 Harrowhouse has neither of these powerhouses on call. Instead the director is Aram Avakian, who’d never work again after this, and the screenplay is by a very green Jeffrey Bloom (though the credits tell us that Grodin did the adaptation of Gerald A Brown’s original book, whatever that means).

James Mason and Charles Grodin
Watts and Chesser talk diamonds

The film pulls in different directions and has the hallmarks of one conceived in a meeting – how about a heist movie and a screwball comedy? Those original, but papered-over silences and the precision planning of the heist say Rififi or Topkapi. The relationship between Bergen and Grodin and the loose, consequence-free tone say What’s Up Doc. They’re not a happy mix – paranoia and screwball don’t just pull in different emotional directions, they work against each other unless the mix is just right.

The good stuff does not include Grodin, whose character is clearly intended to be a freewheeling Mash-era Elliott Gould type but comes across simply as a weak man. Why the smart, gorgeous and feisty Maren (Bergen) is with him is a mystery. Bergen is the best thing in the film, revelatory even, though Mason, Howard and Gielgud all deliver excellent, carriage-clock performances, as you’d expect, and further down the cast list is more talent – Helen Cherry as the dippy wife of Trevor Howard’s Clyde Massey (she was Howard’s wife in real life too), Peter Vaughan as Meecham’s oikish gimlet-eyed fixer.

There’s a lovely song by Peters and Lee, Long Live Love, over the outro credits but for the most part the music is by Michael J Lewis, who delivers a score high on whimsy, whether it’s right for the scene or not.

The finale kind of says it all – a terrible car chase in which the van containing the diamonds and driven by the escaping heisters is pursued by villains in Jaguars and men on horseback. Are we meant to be enjoying the comedy of it, or should we be willing Chesser and Maren on?

It’s not a terrible film by any stretch. It looks great, it’s full of great actors, and it comes bathed in the glow of a certain type of US/UK production of the era. But at a fundamental level it just doesn’t work – its foundations are on sand – and there’s really no fix in the world that could have solved that.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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