Thanks to Zimbo Films for turning me onto this one. Harry and Walter Go To New York is worth it just to hear Elliot Gould and James Caan’s many duets.
The two star as vaudeville actors-turned-thieves opposite Michael Caine in Mark Rydell’s 1976 effort, five years prior to what I know the director for, On Golden Pond. It’s not just Caine, Gould and Caan (who all, oddly enough, would appear in A Bridge Too Far the next year…well maybe that’s not too odd. Everyone’s in A Bridge Too Far), it’s also Diane Keaton and an awesome cast of supporting players, including a lascivious Charles Durning as a bank owner, Burt Young as a warden, and Carol Kane as one of Keaton’s cohorts.
Mark Rydell’s direction is very modest as he lets the actors do the work, and they mostly do a good job outside of a bit of overacting from Gould’s Walter. It’s the small humor that makes the first and third acts of HWNY really funny. Two of my favorite lines are both from Gould: “Ahhh, I never liked corn, Harry!” when they find themselves amidst a cornfield post-prison break; and “Watch the cat. Oh, it’s a dog,” as a total throwaway line that’s hilarious for how improvised it feels.
The middle act of HWNY really drags, but the climax, where the vaudevillians finally get to put their true talents to use is awesome. It’s not only a good example of a these two actors’ comedic range, but also a nice take down on self-serious theater.
There’s a major bummer at the end of the film. Diane Keaton’s Lissa Chestnut has proved to be a staunch advocate for social justice and moderately characterized as a feminist throughout. Michael Caine’s Adam Worth, on the other hand, seems to be a bit of a chauvinist and is certainly prone to violence. They’re entirely at odds with one-another. Yet, instead of keeping things logical and true to the progression of the script to that point, Rydell and writers Don Devlin and John Byrum have Chestnut inexplicably leave with Worth at the end. It’s a kick in the pants to what was a really strong female character and a total cop-out.
Still, there are other nicely written and directed moments like this one, which takes place at the climax. As the rag-tag gang run by Chestnut, Harry and Walter prepare to rob a bank we see (they don’t) that there’s a missing link in their dynamite. One of Worth’s accomplices comes into the bank amidst their attempt and sees the string of dynamite:
He traces the string back, a bit confused as to what’s going on-
-and inadvertently completes the chain with his hand, thereby enabling the dynamite:
It’s funny largely because it’s clever and because Rydell goes out of his to show us the missing link long before this accomplice comes in, thereby giving us an idea of what’s going to happen before it does.
What is it about these 1960s-70s period/heist films and desaturated sepia tones and ending freeze frames? As the film came to a close I actually said ‘freeze frame’ out loud…and then, sure enough:
I mean, sure, there’s Butch Cassidy, but does every period piece about charlatans or folk heroes need to then cement their legacy by freezing them into the cinematic history books? I wonder how many American genre films did this from 1969 – 1979.