Dig through my big roll of movie posters, the ones I no longer have space to hang on the walls, and you'll find one that isn't very attractive and doesn't fit with the rest: Harry and Walter Go to New York, shown above. The poster represents one of my biggest guilty-pleasure films. I hung the poster in my living room for awhile, but people kept giving it funny looks and eventually I replaced it with Ed Wood, because everyone loves Johnny Depp.
I watched most of Harry and Walter Go to New York by accident when I was about 13 years old. My family was on vacation in Florida and one rainy night, my dad and I were flipping channels to see if we could find anything remotely watchable. We stumbled upon Elliot Gould and James Caan breaking out of prison in the silliest manner possible, and were intrigued. Was this a heist film or a comedy? And then Michael Caine showed up. And Charles Durning. We were riveted to the screen by the spectacle of a ridiculously plotted film with a stellar cast. Later, I found the movie again on late-night TV and videotaped it for my dad, but he preferred to remember it fondly than to actually watch it again. (He feels the same way about The Duchess and The Dirtwater Fox, which is a whole other story.) I was hooked, however. I still have a videotape of the movie, and once in a great while, when no one else is around, I like to watch one of the dumbest caper films ever. The cast is nothing short of incredible, including Elliot Gould, James Caan, Michael Caine, Diane Keaton, Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Burt Young, Jack Gilford, and Lesley Ann Warren. George Gaynes has a sidesplitting role as the Prince in the terrible operetta, for which the orchestra's conductor is none other than Carmine Coppola. In addition, the movie was beautifully photographed by Lazlo Kovacs. How can a movie with a cast and crew like that go wrong?
The 1976 film seems intended to cash in on the Seventies craze for male buddy movies, period crime comedies, and wacky plots. But these elements don't combine well in this film -- it's not The Sting or even The Thief Who Came to Dinner. Harry Dighby (Caan) and the amusingly named Walter Hill (Gould) are late 19th century Grade-Z vaudevillians who dream of hitting the big time in New York, either as musicians on Broadway or as successful criminals. They end up in a Massachusetts jail for pickpocketing, where they run into the famous gentleman thief Adam Worth (Caine) and decide to steal the plans for an "impenetrable" safe that Worth has decided to crack. Somehow Diane Keaton's strident activist character gets involved as well, and by the end of the movie, two quite different groups plan to rob the bank so carefully guarded by Rufus T. Crisp (Durning).
My favorite parts of this movie are the scene in which Keaton's character pretends to be a sophisticated mistress in order to beguile Durning, and the climactic operetta/safe-cracking sequence. I also like Keaton and Caine's warring characters, who send off little sparks of attraction around one another. The singing is pretty bad, but that's kind of the point, and at least it's fun without being unwatchable. You will never forget Lesley Ann Warren clutching her ample chest while singing "Kingdom of Love." On the down side, the dialogue is drab and forgettable, Caan and Gould often overact to a painful degree, and the plot is terribly contrived.
Years after seeing Harry and Walter Go to New York for the first time, I was reminded of the film by another bad movie with bad singing leads: Ishtar. I can at least say with confidence that Harry and Walter is better than Ishtar: it's sometimes dumb but never dull. More recently, I was reminded strongly of the "bungling thieves with a dream" plot when I saw The Dion Brothers at Best of QT Fest last month. I think the two would make a great double-feature, or maybe even a triple-feature with O Brother, Where Art Thou? if you're in the mood for a night of watching charming dimwits evade the law. Harry and Walter is a much lighter-hearted film than The Dion Brothers, and a fun movie to catch on late-night cable. And yes, it's available on DVD for your rental pleasure. Just don't expect too much.
I suspect I'm not the only person for whom this movie is a guilty pleasure. Years later, Caan's son Scott took a role as a similarly dimwitted criminal in a much more successful caper film, Ocean's Eleven, which also starred Elliot Gould. And a few years after that, the lame-o title of Harry and Walter Go to New York was echoed in a similarly titled film that was a much bigger hit: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.