BR: Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)

April 30, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  February 20, 2018

Genre:  Comedy / Caper

Synopsis: A pair of singing & dancing con men escape from prison and head to NYC to rob an impregnable vault before a rival beats them to the dough.

Special Features: Audio commentary with film historians Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




You could argue quite convincingly that the success of the Oscar-winning The Sting (1973) spawned a small wave of period caper films, if not augmenting the appeal among audiences for tales of whimsy set in an era in which global crises had either passed or were still a few years away – namely WWI and WWII.

By pushing the period caper tale farther back to the turn of the 20th century century, the lack of advanced technology forces characters to rely on wits and experience to extricate themselves from tight situations, emphasizing behaviour, dialogue, and relations instead of gizmos and fast-moving getaway cars and trains.

That seems to have been the challenge facing the writers of Harry and Walter Go to New York, the improbably titled comedy caper in which low-level con men Harry & Walter  (James Caan & Elliott Gould, respectively) escape from prison with a famous safe cracker’s heist schematics, and try and get to the cash first.

H&W may have been written off by critics as an overblown, unfocused, rambling Sting knock-off featuring two very grating characters and a star cast who should’ve known better. It’s also a combination of assets that should’ve clicked: producer Tony Bill produced The Sting; Mark Rydell had directed Caan in the melodrama Cinderella Liberty (1973) and more interestingly, co-starred with Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973); Gould’s career was in full steam, albeit with variable results; Diane Keaton had shown her skills in dramas (The Godfather I and II, also-costarring Caan) and absurdist comedy in a string of Woody Allen films ( notably Love and Death); and Michael Caine had perfected the affable cynic & scoundrel who could quickly switch to ruthless bastard (The Man Who Would Be King).

There’s no detail on whether writers Don Devlin (father of Stargate’s Dean Devlin), Robert Kaufman (writer of Freebie and the Bean, co-starring Caan), and John Byrum (Inserts) worked in tandem, but the logical assumption is Devlin and Byrum may have collaborated on the story and first script, and Kaufman was brought in for fine tuning, with material bounced back to the other two with further shaping by Rydell. Caan is reported to have disliked the final film, and the lack of any interviews on Twilight Time’s disc may be a sign it’s still work with whom most connected prefer some distance, if not silence (although see a set of links to relatively recent interviews with Gould and Rydell posted on YouTube at the end of this review).

Film historians Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo seem to agree H&W is ‘one of the best films of the 1970s you’ve never heard of,’ and depending on one’s sense of humour, it is. Not unlike Mike Nichols’ The Fortune (1975), this is an extremely odd, overlong and indulgent creature that has its characters and performances pitched high and broad, with sometimes masses of language flowing at breakneck speed, plus musical numbers. Similar to Ishtar (1987), the male leads aren’t bright, aren’t the best singers, and get themselves involved with a disparate group of characters, and a good 10-20 mins. could be snipped to tighten the pacing and reduced the reliance on the pair’s constant attempts to sing (or infuse already shticky shtick with music), but if one is able to forgive and relish the lengthy first act in which H&W are arrested, tossed into jail, gain the trust of master thief Adam Worth (Caine), escape to New York City on a bicycle, find refuge with militant suffragette Lissa Chestnut (Keaton), and attempt to usurp the contents of a supposedly impregnable safe using plans stolen from Worth, it’s a surreal delight.

Like The Sting, the period décor by Harry Horner (father of composer James Horner) is extraordinary, and an unusual detail is given to the kind of protective technology that may have existed to prevent robbing a massive safe… and the possible workarounds using available chemicals, wires, and a broom. The costumes are lovely, and David Shire’s score is appropriately jaunty but never grating (plus he makes a cameo as the pianist in the opening scene in which we’re treated to the boys’ signature song “I’m Harry, I’m Walter” with goofball lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Godfather co-composer Carmine Coppola also appears as the conductor stressed out as a musical is almost derailed by the boys who pop in when not rejoining the robbery below).

Caan and Gould are perfectly teamed as con artists, with the latter’s Walter genuinely yearning for stage legitimacy, and the former hungry to not only join the league of A-list conmen like Worth, but beat one of the best. Caine is both fun and chilling as the master thief, enjoying a surreal degree of celebrity in and out of jail, yet willing to kill if the answers he requires are not forthcoming (hence Walter almost suffocating in a safe while Harry runs to retrieve the stolen bank schematics).

Keaton’s shift from moral suffragette to joining H&W’s team to beat slimy Worth at his own game is believable, given she has the plans everyone wants, and when her publishing operations are destroyed, it makes sense a kind of ‘moral revenge’ is justified.

The wealth of supporting actors is dizzying – Charles Durning, Lesley Ann Warren, Dennis Dugan, Carol Kane, Burt Young, Ted Cassidy, Brion James, Kim Lankford, and many more – but what makes the whole excess work is the razor sharp editing by David Bretherton (Cabaret, Peyton Place, Winter Kills) and Don Guidice (The Yakuza, Three Days of the Condor). Scenes could be trimmed or a few lost, but H&W is a great example of pushing action forward with the assumption the audience is film-savvy. Never mind the sharp edits for the musical numbers and fast banter between characters; a great example is a seamless jump cut that initially supposes Chestnut is in the room where Gould was locked in a safe, but a pull-back reveals the speech is to rally her troops at home, beating Worth using his plans with better timing, coordination, and moral imperative.

The cross-cutting and choreography of dual attempts at breaking into the bank while respective teams scurry through their own tunnels as differing members are either in the playhouse’s audience or on stage is equally skillful. The ambitiousness of the filmmakers may have exceeded the expectations of audiences wanting a brisk caper flick, but in spite of the finale’s length and the admittedly overwrought farcical antics of H&W bumbling between the robbery and improvising a ‘new’ song, the movie’s hardly a mess.

TT’s disc features a lovely transfer showcasing László Kovács’ cinematography, and an isolated stereo track with Shire’s previously unreleased jovial score. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes celebrates the production’s cast & creative crew, and makes a logical parallel to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, suggesting the duo’s screen antics inspired the creation of H&W, reset in a an earlier time when fast-talking and ducking worked better than a gun.

The cover sleeve sports the original poster design which may not mimic the campaign art of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), but it seems more than a little coincidental to feature Gould and Caan riding on a bicycle (which they do in the film) in both the poster and theatrical trailer, evoking the famous “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” bicycle number in Butch, itself a tale of smart-assed outlaws conning their way into banks to grab some cash.

Mark Rydell’s follwing film was the overwrought Janis Joplin riff The Rose (1978), followed by the Oscar-winning On Golden Pond (1981).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan









External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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