Daily Archives: December 11, 2011

Bank Shot 1974

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A bank on wheels.

Donald E. Westlake was a prolific author that excelled in writing elaborate and ingenious crime capers that were later turned into movies including:  The Split, The Hot Rock, and Cops and Robbers. However, this one may not only be his most ingenious and funniest, but it may actually be the most ingenious and hilarious bank robbery movie made of all time. The concept is outrageously offbeat and consists of a bunch of drop-outs who decided to rob a mobile home that has been turned into a bank, but instead of stealing money out of the bank they decided to steal the entire building.

One of the great things about this movie and one that makes it so delightful to watch over and over is the fact that it doesn’t just sit on its one-joke premise and squeeze it until there is nothing left, but instead uses it as a springboard for all sorts of wild and offbeat tangents. This film is simply one wild comedic gag and set-up after another and all at a zany fast-pace. The scenes are original and work in perfect balance to the characters and rest of the story.

Some of the best ones are when the main character of Walter Upjohn Ballentine (George C. Scott) tries to break out of his prison grounds by using a bulldozer that he has stolen while the prison warden tries to somehow chase him down while driving a little bitty golf cart. There is also the scene where the motley crew crawl underneath the bank building and quietly install wheels on it and then cart the place away with the bank guards still inside.  The scene where they hide out in a crowded trailer park and the police and F.B.I. surround the wrong home is also hilarious and is their many futile attempts to break open the bank’s safe, which is supposedly burglar proof. Another gem is when the bank goes careening down a steep hill and they go chasing after it.

All the characters are wonderfully kooky. Ballentine and his group are truly social outcasts and losers. Too many films portray the supposed outsider as still being cool and hip when in reality they are anything but. Here they are dopey looking and inept. None of them could fit in if they wanted too and yet they all show a nice camaraderie to one another as well as an amazing resiliency and a ‘never say die’ philosophy even as they come upon one unexpected obstacle after another. The film nicely brings out the vivid anti-establishment, anti-authority feeling during that era that in today’s films seems diluted. The idiosyncrasies of the characters is also fun including Frank McRae as Herman X a black man who wants to use his share of the stolen proceeds to run for mayor of Anaheim where he hopes to then instill ‘some law and order’.  Joanna Barnes as a carefree hippie is engaging as is her infectious laugh.

Clifton James as ‘Bulldog’ Strieger the police warden who makes it his mission to track down Ballentine and is gang is perfect. For one thing he really does look like a bulldog and his hamminess is fun without going overboard. He has become famous for his redneck sheriff character and it has been used in many other, more famous films including two James Bond movies: Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.  As well as Superman II and Silver Streak, but here I think he is at his funniest.

About the only thing that I did have a problem with was with George C. Scott himself. Normally he is a fine actor who usually gives brilliant, flawless performances, but here he added traits to his character that make him annoying. For one thing he speaks with a lisp. I have no idea why he decided to do this, but it doesn’t work. He also wears big bushy eyebrows, which look dumb and distracting.

The film is also too short. It runs at only 80 minutes, but I would have loved to see it keep going. The ending is also a bit of a dud. It seems like the writers wrote themselves into a hole that they had no idea how to get themselves out of, so they just abruptly ended it.

Otherwise this is a creative, highly original comedy that improves with each viewing. It’s great non-think entertainment for a slow evening that can also be enjoyed by the whole family.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 31, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gower Champion

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix Streaming

11 Harrowhouse (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cockroaches come in handy.

Heist films are usually a dime a dozen and it seems to becoming 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 unique and a highpoint. Howard and his girlfriend manage to break into the electrical system of the building and put cockroaches with different colored stripping 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 vaults 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.

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 70’s era.

The supporting cast is filled 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

Released: September 26, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Aram Avakian

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: Amazon Instant Video