(lightly): Charles Grodin and his Humpback Classic, 11 HARROWHOUSE

By James Kenney

Grodin’s thoughtful concentration overtook the production.  The rambunctious Trevor Howard apparently would dissipate when working with Grodin, as they would get caught up in script discussion and try to catch “a nice moment here, catch a nuance there.”  As the press kit describes, “even the muted shutter of a still camera at long range can crack [Grodin’s] concentration for the day.”

Grodin’s real life countenance doesn’t appear to have been much different than his on-camera persona.  [James] Mason recounted what a day on the Harrowhouse set was like: “Here comes Chuck. First he’ll say a brisk good morning, then he’ll tell me a couple of thoughts about the scene that have occurred to him overnight. He likes to worry at it.”

Grodin admitted as much, agreeing “it’s the way I am. If I let any of the details slip I’d only be punishing myself for being weak-minded. In a way I envy people who can walk in, turn it on, leave and then turn it off completely. But I’m not really one of those movie guys…”

One of the stranger 1970s caper films, 11 Harrowhouse is an appropriate film to discuss in tribute to Charles Grodin, who passed at age 86 earlier this year.  Laconic, dryly witty, intelligent, and perhaps a little offputting, 11 Harrowhouse is much like Grodin himself.

A comedy heist adventure film, written by Jeffrey Bloom but “adapted by” Grodin into its definitive form, Harrowhouse was directed by the talented, forgotten Aram Avakian, who had pulled off a minor critical hit the previous year with Cops and Robbers, a New York City heist film also produced by Harrowhouse‘s Elliot Kastner. 

Distributed by 20th Century Fox, co-starring Candice Bergen, James Mason, John Gielguld and Trevor Howard, and shot in Panavision by Arthur Ibbetson, 11 Harrowhouse is yet one more worthwhile example of humpback cinema, imperfect work that nonetheless yields fruit and rewards a variety of sensibilities.

Just maybe not yours…

The Most Charles Grodinish Movie Ever.

11 Harrowhouse is a relatively placid comedy thriller about a twelve billion dollar diamond caper that, in its final form, proves the most Charles Grodinish movie ever. 11 Harrowhouse is the London address of the world’s clearing house for diamonds, the Consolidated Selling System, who, led by an ascetic, scolding, arrogant Gielgud are not above murdering those who dare go against it and who stockpile diamonds in its underground vault to artificially manipulate diamond values globally. 

Grodin is an ineffectual American diamond dealer, Chesser, with an absurdly gorgeous and oddly loyal girlfriend in Bergen, who, driven by a brutal debt to Howard, becomes a fairly unenthusiastic thief, enlisting the genteel and righteous Harrowhouse insider Mason in his efforts.

You might expect a conflict between brash American impudence and stiff-lipped British stoicism in a film like this, but Grodin plays Chesser like a Brit divested of the accent; he’s in full Grodin inflamed ambivalence mode, which results in a wryly absurdist tone to the whole enterprise which assures its cult status but also makes all-too-fathomable the initial indifference Harrowhouse faced upon release; things don’t progress or erupt, they just kind of unfold in an unconventional, pleasant manner. (Plus, focusing initial promotional artwork on a cockroach, however important that cockroach is to the plot, was likely a mistake when you have, say, a world-class beauty like Bergen to exploit.)

Bergen shows the “good sport” amiability that eventually won critics over after she had a rough go of it at the start of her career; Bergen had been working hard to develop her acting after early misfires like The Magus, taking serious roles in Carnal Knowledge and Soldier Blue and, previous to Harrowhouse, taking time off from acting completely to focus on photojournalism.

As detailed in promotional materials at the time of release, Bergen had done a Life cover story on Charlie Chaplin’s return to Hollywood and, as press materials describe, a “devastating profile on the former mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty, whom she named ‘The Man in the Empty Suit.’”  And in February of ’74, Playboy Magazine devoted 40 pages to a Bergen treatise headlined “Can a Cultural Worker from Beverly Hills Find Happiness in the People’s Republic of China?”  Bergen clearly wasn’t coasting on her looks, which Pauline Kael described in her review of Harrowhouse as “so consistently gorgeous she looks like a science-fiction creation.”

Her enduring career has proven the comedy chops and smarts Bergen demonstrates in Harrowhouse were no fluke, and part of what makes her so attractive is not her Nordic blonde beauty but her silliness. As she said upon release, “In fact, I’m the klutz who makes a terrific entrance to the party and then trips and falls and walks around with food in her hair. The ice maiden stuff is a big defense – it’s protection. It keeps a lot of creeps away.” 

It’s hard to dislike someone who, in speaking of her own disastrous previous film, The Hunting Party, said “All I do in this film is get raped and have orgasms. But I’ve got the orgasms down pat now. It’s your token ten seconds of heavy breathing followed by my baroque expression, eyes heavenward.” Bergen succeeds at being dazzling ,amiable and open in Harrowhouse, but we just have to accept her tenacious loyalty to Grodin, whose underplaying doesn’t allow us much understanding of why she’s so smitten with him (“It’s a love story and it’s funny” is how she explained why she took the role, but the love story is just sort of there without elucidation, allowing us to not worry about Grodin too much, not when he’s got this otherworldly, affluent sweetheart by his side). 

The director Aram Avakian, of Iranian and Georgian descent, also made The End of the Road with Stacey Keach and with Harrowhouse producer Elliot Kastner the superb, offbeat New York cops-as-criminals comedy Cops and Robbers featuring Joe Bologna and Cliff Gorman. He was also the initial director on Alan Alda’s forgotten George Plimpton vehicle Paper Lion, but left before principal photography begun.  Oddly, he never directed again after Harrowhouse, which is too bad because he coined a new catch phrase while shooting; he would turn to the British cameraman Ibbetson and say in his New York accent “Make it beautiful, and it’ll be terrific.” He, alas, never had a chance to say it again on a film set.

Laughter that is essentially pointless can be tiring, but what about essentially inconsequential chuckling? I chuckle all the way through 11 Harrowhouse but never fully connect with the caper plot or the personal quandary of Grodin’s character.  While I still rather admire the film, one wonders if early test screenings led to similar results– The film was clearly “troubled” as a look at a July 23, 1973 revision credited to Grodin and Bloom has none of Grodin’s constant deadpan narration, which is what most people remember about 11 Harrowhouse if they remember anything at all about it.  Grodin’s dry poker-faced narration, that people either love or hate (one Twitter mutual thought it sounded like a DVD commentary), is nowhere to be seen in the screenplay, indicating it was a post-production add to a film one presumes was getting negative feedback from test audiences or studio honchos or what have you.

The film is peculiar, with a lot of whispery talk from the likes of Mason and Gielguld that you’ve got to lean forward to hear, which coincides with Grodin’s extremely dry delivery of his own dialogue and equally gentle added narration.  It’s a caper film unlike any other in which much of the film is inference, which is why they perhaps added Grodin’s narration, but the narration itself is curious, as it’s hard to tell if Grodin is trying to pull a laugh or not.  But it somehow works, its quirks snapping at your heels until you submit and want to give the movie a hug for its pop-art off-kilter amusements.

“Charles Grodin: Writer, Director, Actor, Worrier”

One of the great straight men in the latter half of 20th century pop culture, whether deadpanning it through Midnight Run, or a Saturday Night Live episode where the uncomfortable gag was he was unprepared and didn’t know what was going on, or attacking Johnny Carson’s sincerity with a straight face in a Tonight Show interview (he was given an exclusive contract in 1973 to only appear on Carson’s talk show due to the hostility he’d show Carson, eliciting uncomfortable laughs from puzzled audiences), we’re not every fully certain that Grodin is endeavoring to make us laugh with his sardonic unfussy minimalism. He’s like a non-aggressive Andy Kaufman, putting one over on all of us.

But he’s funny.  The film’s funny.  But when Candice Bergen suggests there might be a bomb in a letter he’s had thrust into his hands, and he deadpans “You open it,” his script does alert readers the line should be tossed of “lightly,” as it does multiple times throughout.  Sarcasm done “lightly” is Grodin’s pilothouse.

11 Harrowhouse has a bemused quality, much like Grodin himself in his best roles, such as in Midnight Run.  His revision of the Harrowhouse script reads like something one of his other characters, Midnight Run’s Jonathan Mardukas, say, might have drafted to occupy himself as Robert De Niro flits about trying to find a way to bring his bounty, Grodin, in. The film almost seems to be reacting to other movies released around the same time the way Grodin’s character reacts to De Niro in Run. It has a nicely goofy, almost stoned spirit. Its unusual rhythm is built off almost any given moment being happily inconsequential, which is much the charm of Grodin himself, who gets the majority of his effect from underplayed reactions to the situations around him.

When he throws himself around a set mugging in reaction to Jim Belushi or Martin Short or Beethoven the dog, it doesn’t really work; when his underplayed nonchalance riles up a De Niro or a Gielguld or a Carson, then he’s on to something.

Midnight Run is brilliant because it isn’t ALL Grodin; his exasperating cool and passive aggressive hostility is given a perfect foil in De Niro’s flustered, impatient bounty hunter.  Grodin’s perfectly realized creation of an honorable guy who is also really kind of a prick works so well because Dennis Farina and even De Niro (who is used to outwitting dumber bounty hunters as personified by John Ashton and dumber FBI agents personified by Yaphet Kotto) can’t quite believe what they’re up against in Grodin, who by all rights should be crushed by them and yet keeps getting the upper hand. Grodin is hilarious when he’s impassive and isn’t always effective when he’s brash, because there’s desperation in his brashness.  His deadpan has more variety to it, and he expresses a vivid comic range in it.

In 11 Harrowhouse all the characters (save Bergen) are cut from the Grodin mold, gently contemptuous of their environment, dryly commenting on it.  Gielgud is playing the kind of bad guy Grodin plays when he plays bad guys, in Ishtar or Heaven Can Wait. His character keeps a permanent inventory of 20 million carats “below stairs;” four tons of quality stones, twelve billion dollars worth, wholesale, used to control demand and throttle the market. With this safety net, one understands why he wryly feels in control of the world and disdains peons like his longtime employee Mason or sellers like Grodin desperate to be allowed entrance into Harrowhouse in the first place. He is engagingly odious, which might be due to a certain bravery; as Gielgud said at the time of release, “I realize that you have to show an audience the best and the worst of you, however unattractive. To act from the inside out, not from the outside in.

Actors often merge with their roles, but 11 Harrowhouse merges with Grodin. It’s all faint, vaguely remote merriment, smarter than everything else around, cool but also more guileful than you first suspect, as its humor keeps sneaking up on you and doesn’t really make you laugh when you apprehend what’s going on; you smile in knowing admiration, like you’ve passed some sort of test by being in on the gag. 

This is the film’s main virtue and limitation. You won’t get whiplash from the plot developments, and there’s something gentle in its cutting humor. The way Gielguld walks contemptuously past Grodin, the way Mason tosses off an apologetic “I’m sorry” to Grodin after Gielguld rips him off, in a sale the way Trevor Howard’s wife’s face freezes in a smile when she sees the radiant Candace Bergen enter her palatial estate (the wife is played by Howard’s real-life wife, Helen Cherry).  The film is a grouping of slight but pleasing bits, but with Grodin’s late-addition monotone narration ladled over, it’s slight and insistent at the same time.  Very little is thrust at you, but the narration seems worried that you didn’t get the unforced gag and so gently reminds you not to drift away—however the correspondingly unforced nature of the narration seems to indicate Grodin wanted it all to be of a piece, which is why it’s one bit of post-production tinkering that doesn’t sink a film, unlike countless other examples in cinematic history.

The film is not devoid of action and has the opulence of a decaying British empire indeed made beautiful by Ibbetson; the big action finale was shot on the manicured grounds of Hertford England’s country seat, Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, plus the parklands of nearby Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough, and birthplace of Winston Churchill.  By the time they finished shooting, the filmmakers demolished five Jaguar saloon, three Ford Transit vans, two veteran Rolls Royces, a brace of Lotuses, a Jensen and a red Dino Ferrari Sports Coupe. 

Despite all this elegant vehicular hardware put to the test, you’ll scarcely remember the action sequences a week later. 

But you will remember Grodin’s droll narration.

It’s peculiar, and I like it quite a bit, but I can appreciate Pauline Kael’s response that 11 Harrowhouseisn’t offensive, but it’s so negligible that an hour after you’ve seen it you probably won’t remember you’ve been to the movies.”  The film is underseen and should be known better, and I wish Avakian had gotten the chance to make another movie.

For Grodin fans it is basic, essential viewing. There was a Shout! Factory DVD put out a few years back and it is currently available in HD for streaming rental or purchase via Vudu and Amazon and the usual suspects.

11 Harrowhouse is all rather alluring counterpoint; what’s never clear is the point. This is partially why it never caught on, and why it maintains interest over forty-five years after its release. Check it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s