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Having shared producer's credit on the overwhelming critical and popular success The Sting (1973), multihyphenate industry fixture Tony Bill must have felt comfortable in serving as executive producer on another star-driven, period-steeped buddy/caper comedy. Despite the gathering of estimable marquee draws of the day--James Caan, Elliott Gould, Michael Caine, Diane Keaton--the end result, Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), arrived in theaters to middling consumer response and a critical pasting. Still, there's plenty to commend a revisitation, from the pricey production design to a charismatic cast supplemented by many able comic players.
The 1890s-set scenario follows Harry Dighby (Caan) and Walter Hill (Gould), two failed vaudevillians reduced to a carnival mind-reading con; their incompetence at fleecing the rubes invariably serves to land them in the state penitentiary. Inside, the bungling grifters make the acquaintance of a professional hero, the urbane, calculating master thief Adam Worth (Caine). With the prison administration bought and paid for, Worth lives a princely existence, and he presses the new inmates into service as his manservants. It's there that the boys make the acquaintance of Lissa Chestnut (Keaton), the editor of a socialist newspaper, who'd been granted access to Worth for an interview.
Harry and Walter inevitably stumble upon Worth's schematics for the planned heist of a bank in Lowell, Massachusetts. After photographing the plans (and accidentally destroying them in the process), the duo proceed to break jail with the intent of pulling the job themselves. Their paths again across with Lissa, who pledges the assistance of her anarchist staff in exchange for a substantial chunk of the take going to a milk fund for the poor. Worth, for his part, arranges a quiet release from prison so he can race the boys to the crime scene--and make sure they're properly repaid for their assistance.
The worst that Worth had planned for Harry and Walter couldn't have been a whole lot crueler than the response of many contemporary critics. "[I]t's so implacably cute that you might suspect it was based on a coloring book that was based on The Sting," Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times. "It's big and blank and so faux naif that you want to hit it over the head in the way that used to bring people to their senses in true farce, of which this is no example." Variety similarly sniffed that it "may rate as the numbest and dumbest picture released in months...In a season of general mediocrity, this is the prize turkey."
For Walter Hall's 1981 Caine biography Raising Caine, Burt Young, cast as the obsequious prison warden, proffered his own theories as to why Harry and Walter Go to New York misfired. "Michael is so goddam bright, he's a total professional. But the trouble with the film was that we all hit it off too much. Everybody was patting each other on the back. I've never heard so many cries of brilliant and bravo! Sometimes a movie gets bumpy when that happens. It loses its way and nobody knows where it's going. You lose the pits and valleys for just peaks, and in the end your audience."
Producer: Don Devlin, Harry Gittes
Director: Mark Rydell
Screenplay: John Byrum, Robert Kaufman (screenplay); Don Devlin, John Byrum (story)
Cinematography: Lszl Kovcs
Art Direction: Richard Berger
Music: David Shire
Film Editing: David Bretherton, Don Guidice
Cast: James Caan (Harry Dighby), Elliott Gould (Walter Hill), Michael Caine (Adam Worth), Diane Keaton (Lissa Chestnut), Charles Durning (Rufus T. Crisp), Lesley Ann Warren (Gloria Fontaine), Val Avery (Chatsworth), Jack Gilford (Mischa), Dennis Dugan (Lewis), Carol Kane (Florence).
by Jay S. Steinberg