by RICHARD WINTERS
Heist films are usually a dime a dozen and it seems to have become increasingly difficult to find a new spin on the genre. However, this film, based on the novel of the same name by Gerald A. Browne, is rather ingenious and deserves more attention. The plot revolves around Howard R. Chesser (Charles Grodin, who also co-wrote the screenplay) as a small-time diamond merchant who gets the chance to supervise the purchase and cutting of a large diamond that will be named after its wealthy owner Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard). The diamond ends up being stolen and stored inside the vaults of a large diamond conglomerate called “The system” that is located at 11 Harrowhouse. With the help of an inside man named Charles (James Mason) who works at the vault and has become unhappy with the company, Howard and his daredevil girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) pull off a daring heist.
The robbery itself is quite unusual and a high point. Howard and his girlfriend manage to break into the electrical system of the building and put cockroaches with different colored striping along their backs down through the piping that houses the building’s electrical wiring. They do this to find out which ones lead to the underground vault. Once Charles reports to them which cockroach came through the vault’s electrical outlet, Howard pulls out the wiring and replaces it with a long thin hose. The hose is connected to a powerful vacuum, which sucks up the diamonds and places them into a large truck sitting outside the building and driven by Maren.
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When the crime has been completed Howard learns that they’ve been doubled-crossed and a wild car chase inside the sprawling estate of an English mansion ensues. The chase sequence features some funny voice-over commentary by the Howard character as well as some excellent stunt driving.
Howard’s relationship with his girlfriend has a twist to it as well, which I enjoyed. Instead of Howard being the macho one it is actually Maren. She likes to drive her flashy sports car at high speeds, which scares Howard. During the robbery she is the one who does all of the dangerous stunts while Howard looks on with awe. She is also loaded with money and helps support Howard during the lean times. I thought this role-reversal was refreshing and nicely reflective of the 70s era.
The supporting cast is filled with esteemed British actors that inject the film with energy and class. I have always felt that Trevor Howard was an incredible talent. Here his screen time is unfortunately limited, but he still makes the most of it. Sir John Gielgud as the director of “The system” is splendid as well. His character is snippy and acerbic and this comes to a hilt when he finds out they’ve been robbed, which is highly amusing. James Mason is equally brilliant as Charles. I have always found him to be a superior actor, but was impressed with how he managed to steal every scene he is in despite playing someone who is rather meek and passive.
If anyone comes off poorly it is actually Grodin. I find the man to be a very talented actor-writer, but he goes a bit overboard in his portrayal of someone who is detached and malcontent. Most of the time Grodin seems to be almost sleepwalking through the part as he shows no energy and becomes almost transparent. His running narrative though is quite funny and one of the best elements of the film. There are two versions of this movie, one with the narrative and one without. I would recommend the one with the narrative as it gives the story a slightly added dimension.
The film did not do well upon its initial release and Grodin has said in later interviews that the reason for this was because the audiences at the time “didn’t get it.” His intention was not to make a crime caper at all, but instead use the story to take potshots at big business and the establishment. The satirical elements are there, but it is much too soft. For satire it needed a lot more of a punch and payoff. For light entertainment it is kind of clever and works pretty well on a slow afternoon although I did find the first half to be a bit slow-going and did not become engaged with it until the actual execution of the robbery.
My Rating: 6 out of 10 stars