Typically I try to balance my writing for Zimbo Films between all kinds of cinema, American, foreign, and avant-garde. However it occurred to me that there are a number of American films that have drifted into obscurity over the years that I have enjoyed very much. So I have decided to begin writing a number of pieces on these films. The first film I am going to write about, as part of this informal series, is Mark Rydell’s film Harry & Walter Go To New York (1976). The criteria for this series will be films released after 1960 but before 2000. The idea being to rediscover some of the most unique films modern American cinema has produced.
Rydell’s film follows two performers Harry and Walter, who regularly scam their audience out of their money. Once apprehended by the police, Harry and Walter are sent to prison where they are made valets to Adam Worth, the world’s greatest bank robber. Harry and Walter soon escape prison once they have stolen Worth’s plans for a robbery. On the outside, they are assisted by radical reporter Lissa Chestnut and her colleagues in the heist.
Mark Rydell began his career as an actor in lead roles for television in the late fifties. Though he would continue to take supporting roles for the remainder of his career, Rydell made the transition to directing in the mid-sixties. As a director Rydell would not find critical acclaim until the seventies when he directed a number of popular films including The Cowboys (1972), On Golden Pond (1981) and James Dean (2001). Like Harry & Walter Go To New York, Rydell’s three most successful films listed above each have a definite pre-occupation with classic Hollywood. The Cowboys subverts John Wayne’s position in the Western genre by having him murdered in the second act by Bruce Dern. On Golden Pond works the same way, subverting Henry Fonda’s image as a soft-spoken family man by casting him as a grumpy, foul mouthed, and bitter father opposite his daughter Jane Fonda. The relationship between father and daughter in On Golden Pond mirrors their real life relationship and sparked some minor controversy before Henry Fonda took home the Oscar for the last time. James Dean is the most overt exercise in subverting a Hollywood propagated image. James Franco’s turn as Dean won tremendous critical attention and shattered much of the mythos surrounding the twentieth century’s most enduring cult icon. The tactics that made these films successful are employed more subtly in Harry & Walter Go To New York, though the effect remains as strong.
John Byrum co-wrote the screenplay to Harry & Walter Go To New York with Robert Kaufman. Before penning the script to Bill Murray’s ill-fated production of The Razor’s Edge (1984), Byrum established himself as a considerable talent with his film Inserts (1976), which has gained quite the cult following over the years. Though Harry & Walter Go To New York was conceived before Inserts, both reveal Byrum’s interest in the 1920s and his fascination with the narrative tropes of silent comedy features.
Coupling Byrum and Rydell ensured Harry & Walter Go To New York’s indebtedness to silent comedies just as surely as it ensured that the film would be able to exist outside of any pre-established historical narrative, a necessity for the biopic. If one compares Harry & Walter Go To New York with James Ivory’s 1975 film The Wild Party (a film about silent films that attempts to incorporate their filmmaking style) one is stuck by how much more modern Harry & Walter Go To New York is despite the fact that Ivory’s film has much more character development and visual finesse, two standards of modern cinema. The difference is in the success of adopting silent film technique. Rydell’s film has little character development in the dialogue, relying instead on the constant visual gags perpetrated by its stars James Caan and Elliott Gould to ensure the audience’s association with them out of nostalgia. Rydell also prefers static wide shots and two shots to the bold camera moves of The Wild Party, and is in effect able to create his film in the visual vernacular of a Harold Lloyd film.
The other component to Harry & Walter Go To New York that makes the film work so well is it’s casting. Michael Caine plays Adam Worth, the world’s greatest bank robber. At the time Caine was the ideal actor to play a suave scoundrel, who, keeping true to the style of silent comedy, is also completely evil and self-serving. Casting James Caan as Harry and Elliott Gould as Walter is another story. Gould and Caan are cast against type as grifter vaudevillians, who are called upon by the script to sing, dance, and perpetrate a variety of physical gags and stunts. This casting against type draws the audience’s attention to the ludicrous nature of slapstick nature in a believable narrative arc. Rydell’s subversion here is not meant to dispel the romanticism of Keaton or Chaplin’s films, but to reinforce it. By revealing slapstick’s impracticality in American films of the seventies by making a slapstick comedy Rydell proposes the necessity for such a comedy in Nixon’s America while at the same time granting that American audiences will only greet such romanticism with bitterness despite the necessity. To balance the cast, a pre-Annie Hall (1977) Diane Keaton plays the love interest of Harry, Walter and Adam Worth as Lissa Chestnut. It is from Keaton’s character and the part she plays in the film that Harry & Walter Go To New York derives its modernity. Though her scenes intentionally lack narrative sophistication, the focus of the comedy is removed from the arena of vaudeville to that of the British sex comedy, where every gesture is an innuendo and every line is delivered tongue in cheek. What’s truly remarkable is that Rydell’s direction of Keaton creates a kind of proto-Annie Hall before Woody Allen had even begun developing his Oscar winning film.
However, despite the cast, the level of filmic sophistication and self-awareness of Harry & Walter Go To New York prevented the film from ever finding its audience. The film was not a success for Columbia pictures, and has only enjoyed minor re-evaluation the few times its been issued for home entertainment. Initially Columbia thought they could cash in on the success of the Robert Redford vehicle The Great Gatsby (1974), just as MGM believed they could with The Wild Party and Paramount with its production of Elia Kazan’s film of The Last Tycoon (1976). This revived interest in silent cinema would not survive into the eighties, and most of these films are all but forgotten today.