DVD ROUNDUP: 11 HARROWHOUSE (1974) AND LUCKY LADY (1975)

January 25, 2011

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Two reviled flops from 20th Century Fox have finally made their way to DVD on the brave shoulders of the Shout! Factory label. Charles Grodin adapted and starred in the heist film 11 Harrowhouse after the  success of his turn in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), only to be met with critical and audience indifference. Lucky Lady is the more infamous failure, the product of agent-turned-producer Michael Gruskoff’s ability to game the Hollywood system (both DVDs come out next Tuesday, February 1st.). Formerly the representative for screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, he bought the rights to their script for $75,000, and then sold it to Fox for $450,000. An impressive profit over the 10% he previously made from their services. By investing that kind of scratch, Fox had to inflate the story into a blockbuster, signing up Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds to star, and Stanley Donen to direct. It received vitriolic reviews, many noting Gruskoff’s ploy, and failed to make a profit (although Jonathan Rosenbaum indignantly reported in Movie Wars that it came close, with $12,107,000 in rentals, a half-million less than its budget, due to Fox’s forcing theaters to keep it for extended runs if they wanted it at all.)

Despite all of these shady backdoor dealings, I rather enjoyed both of them, the “bumbling and stupid romp” (Pauline Kael, New Yorker) 11 Harrowhouse and the “mirthless trumpery” (John Simon, NY Mag) of Lucky Lady. Seeing them outside the torrent of negative publicity both received upon their initial release, it’s easier to judge them on their own limited but amiable merits.

11 Harrowhouse was based on a novel of the same name by Gerald A. Browne, for which Grodin received the ambiguous “adapted by” credit, while Jeffrey Bloom is named as the screenwriter. It’s unclear how much input he had into Bloom’s script, but it at least indicates his investment in the material. Directing duties were handed to Aram Avakian, who had filmed another comic heist, Cops and Robbers, in 1973. Harrowhouse is deeply marked by Grodin’s laconic personality, delivered through his sarcastic voice-over that coolly belittles the events on-screen. It’s an odd distancing device that was apparently removed from some home video releases, turning it into a more conventional thriller. The new Shout! Factory DVD contains the original voice-over, thankfully, and the video transfer is strong. The original film element shows some wear, and the colors are slightly faded, but it shows nice texture and sharpness, probably the best it could look with the material they had. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

Grodin plays Howard Chesser, a small-time gem trader hired by business tycoon Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) to steal an enormous cache of uncut diamonds in London. With the help of his scrappy heiress girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) and Watts, their man on the inside (James Mason), they engineer a robbery of Rube Goldberg-esque intricacy. The owner of the fleeced diamond exchange, the fastidious Meecham (John Gielgud), is understandably peeved, and Chesser and Maren try to escape with the jewels and their lives.

The material is not a good fit for Grodin’s deadpan sad sack routine, which is presumably why the caustic voice-over was added. But the narration is so cutting it undermines the usual genre pleasures of the heist film. When Chesser’s voice drops out and the narrative picks up, the jaunty tone disappears and we’re back inside the thriller mechanics, which Avakian runs through at a dulled pace. This tension between tones drains the film of any suspense, as we are now viewing the actions through Chesser’s retrospective disdain. It’s an odd, discomfiting viewing experience, an experiment in POV that implodes its own narrative.

But there is plenty to savor amid the debris (see the grizzled faces above). While Grodin and Bergen both seem cold and affected for their supposedly suave characters, the supporting cast is superb. The three Brits inject reptilian evil (Gielgud), blowhard narcissism (Howard) and a weary nihilism (Mason) into their preciously scant screen time. These are actors who can evoke entire backstories with an inching up of an eyebrow. Mason’s aging diamond appraiser quietly shuffles off with the film, secreting tragedy in the midst of the procedural. Watts has been under the employ of Gielgud’s Meecham and suffered his silent censures, whether dismissive hand waves or a skeptical lip curl, for a lifetime. Mason is a mound of regret, with a slightly haunched back and a slow-motion manner. The way in which he delicately eats a sandwich in a secret meeting with Grodin expresses everything about him – his professionalism and exactitude as well as his fatalism, as  might be the last lunch he ever has. (Reviewers of the time also singled out Mason’s performance, including Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, and the NY Times’ Nora Sayre).

No saving graces were allowed for Stanley Donen’s Lucky Lady:

Pauline Kael: “an agent’s picture – everybody’s rip-off” (compiled in When the Lights Go Down)

Jonathan Rosenbaum: “conspicuously overproduced and under-nourished.” (quoted in Movie Wars)

Vincent Canby: “it’s ridiculous without the compensation of being funny or fun.” (NY Times)

The ever-misogynistic John Simon:  “As for Miss Minnelli, she is herself a perfect menage a trois in which lack of talent, lack of looks, and lack of a speaking voice co-habit blissfully. Donen sensibly concentrates on her best feature, her legs, but he unfortunately can’t wrap them around her face.” (New York Magazine, Dec. 29th, 1975)

And yet, I found it companionable and amusing, despite the vaseline-gauzed cinematography and the cramped framings necessitated by shooting everything on real boats at sea (it is, in terms of press, the Waterworld of its time). According to one of the two promotional shorts included on the DVD, the production took “a full year to make”, because of the stars’ schedules and the endless problems of shooting on rocking vintage boats. Fox also required re-shoots to include a happy ending (as Joe Baltake outlines here). But as important as production history is to criticism, it is no substitute, and I found Donen’s disaster to be a rather fleet and funny (albeit over-designed) vehicle that teased out the idiosyncracies of his actors.

Liza Minnelli (as Claire, a flapper), Burt Reynolds (as Walker, the dandy) and Gene Hackman (as Kibby, the hobo wiseacre) start up a rum-running business during Prohibition, running their boats up from Mexico. This cuts into the mob’s market, and soon they’re in a shooting war over territory.

The script is slangy and self-conscious without being arch, a pastiche of Jazz Age argot that the actors are able to thrum to life. The set-design is overstuffed art-deco, suffocating the already cramped spaces Donen has to work in, and the decision to use heavy soft-focus filters throughout the film is a failed attempt to go nostalgic, ladling every image over with a soupy haze (the DP was Geoffrey Unsworth, who also shot Liza in Cabaret).

In and around these production snafus the actors excel. Minnelli, the critics punching bag, is quite touching here as the dizzy dame love interest of both leads. Minnelli plays Claire, the intended bombshell, more like an antic Jean Arthur than the Harlow clearly intended. She’s the feather boa-clad ball of energy bouncing off the deft comic work of Burt Reynolds, who exhibits his flair for self-deprecating slapstick (Another bizarre John Simon sidebar, on Reynolds:  “[his] face looks like an armored car made, inexplicably, out of meat.” If someone can parse this, please let me know). Hackman has the knockabout trickster role, the gruff kind of asshole he could play in his rum-induced sleep. Together they form an improbably fun trio, and form one of the few successful polyamorous relationships on film.

The DVD of Lucky Lady is a fine anamorphic presentation, the soft image resulting from the original material (it’s remarked upon in the original reviews). The two vintage featurettes feature interviews with the cast and crew, and there are three theatrical and TV trailers.

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