Thursday, December 18, 2008

Harry and Walter Go to New York

Mark Rydell | 1976 | 115 mins | USA

I love Elliott Gould more than could be expressed in a simple blog post. I'd rather watch him on screen than the vast majority of actors in Hollywood, so when I discovered that he once starred in a wacky caper / heist comedy with James Caan and Michael Caine, I thought "this is going to be 100% pure solid gold".

I was wrong in so many ways that it's hard to count them all. There was nothing the absurdly star-studded cast (which also features Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, Lesley Ann Warren, Jack Gilford, Burt Young and many others) could possibly have done to rescue this bizarre period clunker from a grim death. Actually, I think the film probably had a chance at a life as a cult favourite if it weren't for the unfortunate musical number featuring Elliott Gould in blackface.

In case you're thinking "Heist comedy? Blackface? Gould and Caine facing off mano-a-mano? What doesn't sound awesome about that?", let me clarify.

Gould and Caan play Walter and Harry, respectively. They're a pair of small time shyster Vaudevillians who get caught stealing dough during their phony fortune teller act and end up in the same prison as the notoriously wealthy, classy and powerful bank thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine). When the two hapless would-be criminals discover Worth's scheme to break into the world's most impenetrable bank vault, Harry convinces the reluctant Walter that they should try to beat him to it.

The film isn't bad because of the dumb plot, the casual racism, the excessively wacky slapstick sequences that go on too long, or the repetitive and too frequent Vaudevillian musical numbers. It's bad because in spite of all of the above (which you'd think would at least make it a hilarious thing to watch while you're drunk on a Friday night), it manages to be kind of slow paced, plodding and dull. Even Diane Keaton manages to be so shrill and annoying that it's hard to believe Annie Hall would make her a universal love object for nerds only a year later.

The one fascinating thing about this debacle is Caine's character, Adam Worth, who was based on a real 19th century thief known as the "Napoleon of crime". One of William Pinkerton's worthy adversaries ('scuse the pun) and allegedly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes great nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Worth would make a better subject for a movie than Harry and Walter do. Apparently, a fictitious one was already made starring Christian Bale in the title role. Someone should make a real one.

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