Thursday, December 07, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #28: Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)

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), Carol Kane (Florence), Kathryn Grody (Barbara), David Proval (Ben).

Crew: Mark Rydell (director), Don Devlin and Harry Gittes (producers), John Byrum and Robert Kaufman (writers), David Shire (music), Laszlo Kovacs (cinematography), Fredric Steinkamp, David Bretherton and Don Guidice (editors), Harry Horner (production designer).

Synopsis: Harry and Walter are bumbling entertainers on the American vaudeville circuit in 1892. The pair are arrested for petty theft and jailed in Massachusetts. Adam Worth is a millionaire celebrity who indulges in safecracking just for the thrills. The gentleman thief dines at Shang Drapers in New York, a renowned restaurant that caters to only the most refined criminals. Worth is arrested for cracking the safe of a bank in Lowell, Massachusetts. The manager, Rufus T Crisp, brags that his new bank is invulnerable. Worth is sent to prison in Massachusetts, but even there he is treated like royalty. Harry and Walter become his servants. Worth receives the blueprints for Crisp’s new bank. The safecracker is visited by reporter Lissa Chestnut and a photographer from The Advocate, a people’s paper published in New York. She invites Harry and Walter to visit her office when they are released. The bumbling pair use The Advocate’s camera to take a photo of the blueprints. In the process they set fire to the plans, infuriating Worth. Harry and Walter escape and travel to New York. They join The Advocate’s staff to get the photo of the blueprints. But Worth reappears, having been released from prison. He threatens Lissa, her co-workers and Walter until Harry hands over the photo. Both sides race to rob Crisp’s bank in Massachusetts first. Harry, Walter and friends succeed, using Worth’s own plan. Back in New York Harry and Walter are welcomed to the criminal elite, with Worth leading the plaudits …


Harry and Walter Go to New York (Harry and Walter hereafter) began life as a story by Don Devlin and John Byrum. This was adapted into a screenplay by Byrum and Robert Kaufman for Mark Rydell to direct. Rydell had achieved some success as an actor, while his directing credits included work for TV and the cinema. Harry and Walter was a lavishly mounted production, predominantly shot at Burbank Studios in California. An old penitentiary in Ohio was used as the location for the prison scenes.

Caine was cast in the role of Adam Worth, gentleman safecracker and celebrity thief. He was interviewed on set by Viva magazine in 1975, explaining his criteria for choosing the project: ‘How interesting is the part? Who will I be working with? Are they going to spend enough money on the production to get quality?’ After a decade of success in cinema, Caine said he had no intention of returning to theatre acting. ‘I associate the stage with misery, struggle, hardship, and no money. But motion pictures have meant riches and delirious happiness. I keep reading about movie actors, particularly British actors, who say they need to “return to the well” – to legitimate theatre – to purify their art. But I definitely don’t need any more of that.’

In January 1976 Caine told the Evening Standard about making Harry and Walter. ‘The role I had in this film was entirely different for me. I play an American who has had an Oxford education and speaks with a posh Oxford accent. He aspires to being an English gentleman. I had to revert to my Zulu accent. James Caan and Elliott Gould are also in the film. We were just like three mates. I’ve known them a long time.’

Harry and Walter was lambasted by American reviewers and ignored by audiences when released in 1976, rated PG. It reached the UK in August that year (rated U) and bombed again, with critics particularly savage about Caan and Gould. Harry and Walter was released on video in the UK during 1986 but has long since been deleted. The film was issued on DVD for the US market in 2002.

Reviews: ‘It’s not the fault of Michael Caine that Harry and Walter Go to New York is a four-star flop. Caine and Miss Keaton do their best to salvage something from the chaos, but they are clobbered by the crude fooling of Caan and Gould.’ – Daily Mirror
‘This film fails to work as a light comedy, as a period piece, as a jigsaw puzzle … mainly, it just sits there and dies.’ – New York Post

Verdict: This film is apparently only 111 minutes long, but it feels more like a three-hour epic by the time it finally finishes. For something billed as a period comedy, Harry and Walter Go to New York is painfully unfunny. A lot of money was spent making this movie look good, but the cash would have been better invested in a decent script. Rydell’s direction drains all life from the screen, aided and abetted by a succession of one-note characterisations. Caan and Gould try to evoke the spirit of Laurel and Hardy, but only achieve some tiresome clowning and laboured slapstick. Caine gives a measured, dignified performance against their hapless hysteria. Avoid this film, unless you enjoy the sensation of wanting to gouge out your own eyeballs with a rusty hook.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bull ! This is one of the best and funniest movies of all time, and the musical score is great. I have watched it maybe a dozen times, and it's always a treat. Is it silly ? Yes ! I's at the top of my list.