The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Harry and Walter Go to New York

Some films are doomed from the start. They just are. Production problems, casting decisions, pacing/tone issues, any and all can derail a movie. There's a whole wing of Hollywood movies that are known as Epic Failures. Some overcame it, others didn't. Massively over-budget, 1976's Harry and Walter Go To New York is one that didn't despite an impressive cast.

It's 1908 and a pair of vaudeville actors, Harry (James Caan) and Walter (Elliott Gould), are struggling to make any money at all at their shows, eventually resorting to pickpocketing where they are not surprisingly caught quickly. At the same time, infamous millionaire safecracker Adam Worth (Michael Caine) is caught during a robbery and sent to prison. Working as Worth's slave-servants, Harry and Walter manage to escape and with the blueprints for the infamous bank robber's next job. Unfortunately the well-to-do Worth isn't far behind, and now it's a race against the clock to see who can pull off the job first; the bumbling performers turned con men or the experienced, expert robber?

For whatever reason, this is a movie that received generally poor reviews. On the other hand, I liked it a lot. As Roger Ebert mentions in his review, 'Harry and Walter' is clearly made in the vein of The Sting. There isn't much ink about the movie or its troubled production, but I'm guessing the massive budget problems had to do with the lavish period sets and costumes. It's turn of the century Massachusetts and New York, and everything from the ultra-detailed sets to the immaculate time-appropriate suits to the light-hearted, goofy score from David Shire works well together, especially Laszlo Kovacs' Earth-toned, dulled down color cinematography. It is a period piece, and this 1976 flick gets the period details done the right way.

I'm thinking the biggest reason for the generally negative reviews is the type of humor. Where The Sting was well-written and funny in its ability to underplay the situation, 'Harry and Walter' is not so subtle. High comedy this is not, director Mark Rydell's period-heist movie relying far more on physical humor, and bumbling humor at that. I typically don't go for that type of humor, but it worked for me here. Much of that credit goes to Caan and Gould as the buddy relationship that produces much of the laughs. I've always been a Caan fan, but this is a showier part for him, not the usual tough guy role. Case in point: he sings and dances. Caan's Harry is the confident know-it-all, Gould's Walter the quiet, nervous knows it won't work partner. They play off each other effortlessly.

If James Caan and Elliott Gould weren't enough though (and shame on you if that's the case), the supporting cast shouldn't disappoint. How often do you see Michael Caine get third billing in a movie? His Adam Worth is a scene-stealer, not quite a villain but certainly approaching that territory. Diane Keaton plays Lissa Chestnut, a crusading newspaper woman who joins the bank robbing effort and has everyone fall for her. Charles Durning is the worried bank owner trying to save his $. Also look for Lesley Ann Warren, Michael Conrad, Burt Young, Val Avery, Carol Kane, Jack Gilford, Dennis Dugan and Ted Cassidy rounding out a very deep cast.

A period piece merged with a heist flick certainly had my curiosity on high alert. The actual heist isn't anything special as Harry and Walter's "expert team" attempt to get into Durning's perfect safe. In order to create a diversion, Harry and Walter end up hijacking a stage show with their own hijinx and shenanigans. The act finally wears thin a little, but it's not enough to detract from a movie I enjoyed a lot. The cast is too talented so even if you don't go along with the physical comedy/humor, you should still get some enjoyment out of it. If nothing else, look for the prison from The Shawshank Redemption as a familiar location. Well worth checking out.

Harry and Walter Go To New York <---trailer (1976): ***/****  

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