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Grand Larceny in the Gay Nineties

June 7th, 2010 · No Comments

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In the month of June, Joe Valdez “takes over” programming of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with a series of double features on his favorite film themes. Joe is not a professional curator and may not even show potential as an amateur one, but comments and recommendations for future double features are welcome below.

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 poster Harry and Walter Go To New York DVD

Harry and Walter Go To New York (1976)
Directed by Mark Rydell
Screenplay by John Byrum and Robert Kaufman, story by Don Devlin and John Byrum
Produced by Don Devlin, Harry Gittes
115 minutes

Disparaged by critics and ignored by audiences, Harry and Walter Go To New York deserves a reception much better than the one it was pelted with in July 1976, when all interested parties seemed to agree that the best thing for this lavishly produced comedy with music was to act like it never happened. Actor and veteran TV director Mark Rydell had delivered three solid films in a row — Steve McQueen in The Reivers, John Wayne in The Cowboys and James Caan & Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty — but unable to bank whatever producer Don Devlin was betting on, editor Monte Hellman was hired to recut Rydell’s footage. Harry and Walter Go To New York doesn’t jig to the rhythm of The Sting or any other recognizable genre really, but blunders onto something novel and even magnificent in its own right.

Adapting a story idea by Devlin was screenwriter John Byrum, one of the original staff writers Jim Henson hired for Sesame Street. In many ways, Harry and Walter Go To New York is like something The Muppet Theater might stage on the Muppets’ night off. The jokes don’t have punchlines, at least none that would get very far without a laugh track, but a gentle type of backstage tomfoolery runs through the piece, which like The Muppet Show, allows some of the finest actors of the 1970s — Caan, Gould, Keaton, Caine, Lesley Ann Warren, Charles Durning, Carol Kane — to get in on the low key fun. Whether you think the story is much ado about nothing, the cinematography by László Kovács and production design by Harry Horner make every moment of this visually splendid knick-knack a marvel to watch.

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 title card

In Sudburry, Massachusetts of 1892, the singing and dancing duo of Harry Dighby (James Caan) and Walter Hill (Elliott Gould) take the stage in a variety show whose audience is filled with just as much poultry as people. In New York City, renowned gentleman thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine) falls into a trap sprung by Rufus T. Crisp (Charles Durning), a bank president whose safe was cracked by Worth and his gang. Meanwhile, the dim witted Walter wants little more than a career in show business, but Harry’s criminal enterprise lands the entertainers in the same Concord prison as Adam Worth. Harry and Walter are put in his employ as butlers, maintaining Worth’s lavish cell and receiving his guests, including crusading journalist Lissa Chestnut (Diane Keaton) who arrives to do an expose on the thief.

While Worth charms Ms. Chestnut, Harry cajoles Walter into using her flash lamp camera to photograph the blueprint of a bank vault that Worth plans to crack. When they set the precious blueprint on fire, Worth has Harry and Walter exiled to the prison’s rock quarry, where it’s hoped the idiots will blow themselves up. Using a vial of nitroglycerin, Harry secures an early release for himself and his partner. Arriving in New York, Harry volunteers to Ms. Chestnut’s newspaper hoping to get his hands on the bank vault photograph. Once Worth is set free, the crime lord smashes up the newspaper office in search of the photo. To repair the damage and forge on protecting the public, Ms. Chestnut implores Harry and Walter to help her and her staff (Jack Gilford, Carol Kane, David Proval, Valerie Curtin) crack the vault first.

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Elliot Gould James Caan

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Charles Durning Michael Caine Karlene Gallegly

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Elliot Gould James Caan

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Diane Keaton Dennis Dugan

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Elliot Gould James Caan Diane Keaton

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Michael Caine Lesley Ann Warren

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 David Proval Jack Gilford Dennis Dugan Diane Keaton James Caan Elliot Gould Carol Kane Valerie Curtin

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Michael Caine

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Elliot Gould James Caan

Harry and Walter Go To New York 1976 Elliot Gould James Caan

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 1 user: 100% for Harry and Walter Go To New York

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

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Tags: Crooked officer · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist · Train

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