"This was never a fun place. Oh, they had a pool and everything, but it was never fun."
The title 11 Harrowhouse (1974) has a grim sound to it, but it's a largely light movie, tipped over from heavy heist to comic caper by the onscreen presence and script contribution of Charles Grodin. But more on him later.
Director Aram Avakian made only a few films (this was his last), including an adaptation of John Barth's End of the Road (1970) scripted by Terry Southern that's soon to be reissued courtesy of Steven Soderbergh, and Cops and Robbers (1973), adapted from Donald Westlake's novel by the author himself. His strongest suite as filmmaker was his editing, hardly surprising since he was an editor himself, cutting early films by Coppola and Arthur Penn.
In his untrustworthy memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans recounts firing Avakian from The Godfather, after a Machiavellian attempt to get Coppola fired. Maybe it's true: Avakian was by then a director himself, and may have imagined a knife in Coppola's fleshy back as the ideal implement to push himself into the director's chair. But it's easy to imagine other reasons why Evans might have wanted to remove a Coppola ally from the scene...
Anyhow, Machiavellian maneuverings have a lot to do with 11 Harrowhouse, a really ingenious robbery flick with a neat way of questioning its own thriller status. Avakian's two chief weapons are ace editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, The Elephant Man, Out of Sight) and star/co-writer/narrator Charles Grodin.
"Like most people, I'd thought about doing a lot of things, and always found a way not to. At that time, I thought of myself as a truly dedicated spectator."
Grodin is a diamond salesman in thrall to the System, based at 11 Harrowhouse Street: the System controls the price of diamonds, and it's a hideously smug organisation devoted to the petty exercise of power, embodied by its chairman John Gielgud (who always did a nice line in insufferable toffs). When a semi-psychotic crook with a stately home (Trevor Howard) blackmails Grodin, he and his zesty girlfriend (Candice Bergen) find themselves masterminding a scheme to steal the entire diamond repository (the diamond equivalent of Fort Knox) in what must be the biggest fictional heist conceived thus far. I mean, in Richard Brook's $ (1970), Warren Beatty is after three safe deposit boxes containing $1.5 million. Grodin's heist is worth billions. Beatty is a wimp next to Grodin.
Asides from this amusing scheme, in which the vault's impregnable electronic security system is used as the very conduit for removing the gems, and which involves a slice of chocolate cake, three hand-painted cockroaches, and a penumatic tube, Grodin's dry delivery humorously undercuts the tension at key moments, as well as providing a novelistic means of ramping up anticipation of what's to come: "If I knew then what I found out later..." etc.
"That's me, there. I don't know if it's obvious, but I'm pretty uncomfortable. It's actually my normal state, but in this place, it's a lot worse."
This is one of the finest V.O.s I've ever heard, and Coates drops it in with a beautiful sense of timing. If the flat, low-affect murmur of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and the soft, purring irony of Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. each contribute immeasurably to those films' distinct tones, Grodin's world-weary deadpan gives this movie a wit above and beyond what it deserves. It's the voice of a man buffeted by fate until he can barely react, and his "can you believe this?" manner invites the audience into his head, watching the movie with the same incredulity as its hero. Although some lines feel very much planned, a lot of it feels like Grodin, sitting slightly stoned in a screening room, riffing off the movie, and you feel charmed to be in his company.
He's an unusual lead. He looks like an unfinished drawing of a handsome man, only his eyes and mouth are either very small or somehow further away than the rest of him. He can do a lot with a little, and I guess he has to. I'm not saying that like I don't like him. I like him enormously.
"I've got a pain going down the small of my back. It's either from lifting something, or tension. Quite honestly, I think it's tension."
There's also a few more aces up the film's sleeve. As titled deus ex machine Lady Bolding, Trevor Howard's real-life wife Helen Cherry at last finds a way to keep an eye on her husband that's less wearisome than calling up the studio every morning to check he actually made it to work. As System employee Charlie Watts (!), James Mason provides the film's heart: suffering terminal cancer, he's a worm that defiantly turns, safe from any possible retaliation. His noble decision to royally screw over his bosses puts one in mind of other last wishes: Friedrich Durrenmatt's oft-filmed novel The Judge and his Executioner posits a dying detective defying the law to finally bring to book a master criminal whose career parallels his own; Agatha Christie wrote a final adventure for Hercule Poirot where the sickly sleuth causes his own death in remorse for committing a socially-redeeming murder; and writer Dennis Potter, sick with a tumor he nicknamed "Rupert," fantasized assassinating the news magnate of that name as a final act, liberated by impending death from any fear of what life could do to him.
"When it was all over, I couldn't help think of Watts. Watts, who had spent his whole life in the System, had said to me Yes, there must be rules. But there is something to being human, after all."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.