An unusual Western comedy about a Polish rabbi trying to reach his new synagogue in 1850 San Francisco, The Frisco Kid (1979) is extremely uneven and overlong, but it also offers at least an equal amount funny scenes and especially fine and surprising charm. It's practically forgotten today, despite the presence of a post-Star Wars Harrison Ford**, and more importantly Gene Wilder giving one of his very best performances.
Rabbi Avram Belinski's (Wilder) is sweet and sincere but naive, very much a stranger in a strange land. In Philadelphia, all his money is stolen by Mr. Jones (Ramon Bieri) and brothers Darryl (George DiCenzo) and Matt (The Losers' William Smith). Avram is rescued by an Amish community, has a tense encounter with Indians led by Chief Gray Cloud (Val Bisoglio), and befriends outlaw Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford).
At nearly two hours The Frisco Kid, like most of director Robert Aldrich's films, is a good 20 minutes too long and further hampered by a protracted and basically unnecessary climax that undercuts the core of its appeal. The business with the three bad guys is conventional and uninteresting, while Aldrich's digressions into Longest Yard-style slapstick, including some alarmingly inauthentic women's costumes more appropriate to Benny Hill than 1850 America, go nowhere.
However, these shortcomings don't diminish the film's central theme of religious and racial tolerance, and the friendship between Avram and Tommy, all via Gene Wilder's incredibly endearing rabbi, a man of great faith and determination. Beginning with The Producers (1968), and continuing with such films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silver Streak (1976), Wilder created a series of characters that stand among the screen's most enduring. A string of very bad films sent his movie career into a nosedive during the 1980s, and that he's never entirely bounced back is a real mystery. Why aren't today's filmmakers clamoring to use him in character parts?
As he often did in past films, in The Frisco Kid Wilder infuses humanity into an arch stereotype, in this case the bearded, heavily-accented Jew, walking a delicate line between humorously embracing the stereotype and, via Michael Elias and Frank Shaw's clever script, turning it on its head. One such scene early on comes when, after wandering the wilderness with no food, no money Avram stumbles upon a group of Amish men he assumes, what with their similar hats and long beards, to be Jewish while they believe him to be Amish. This is a very funny scene, but what comes next is quite unexpected - and disarmingly sweet. Another great sequence tests Avram's faith after he and Tommy are captured by Indians; they are bemused by the strange European and his ways that are at once alien and familiar. These scenes, with their honest depictions of people from different backgrounds fascinated by one another, are a sad reminder of what so many of today's films completely lack: human curiosity.
The film has many such moments, and they're so magical it's really a shame that the picture's more conventional comic aspects and injurious over-length (we don't even get the opening titles until 14 minutes in!) stop it just short of being a classic of its kind. Aldrich, always an uneven director, gets sloppy both with his on-set direction and especially his editing, which cuts away to odd angles and begins/ends scenes too abruptly or too leisurely. One scene near the end doesn't make any sense at all because the comedy is played without benefit of the set-up; it only makes sense later on when Avram's actions are explained.
For his part, Harrison Ford is exactly right as the cocky but friendless small-time outlaw. Around this time the actor excelled playing over-confident rogues less hip than they think they are; good bad-guys with a soft spot, waiting to be tamed. Supposedly the part was originally conceived with John Wayne in mind, an intriguing thought though by 1978-79 the actor was far too ill to do feature film work, and in any case Ford's part is like the Johnny Nelson character out of the Hopalong Cassidy movies, not the sage-like veteran gunfighter Wayne would've been.
Video & Audio
The Frisco Kid is presented in a 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original 1.85:1 theatrical release. The image is fairly good considering the general ugliness of late-1970s cinematography and harshness of that era's film stock. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is fine, though I wish there was less of Frank De Vol's often intrusive score. A French audio track is offered, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The only extra is a Trailer, 16:9 and complete, which appears skittish about revealing the film's premise, and tries to pass it off as a Western parody, which it definitely is not. Instead, the trailer mostly consists of clips from Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (a Fox film), and Silver Streak.
The Frisco Kid is a real surprise, offering as it does one of Gene Wilder's best characterizations in a film that's alternately funny and sweetly touching, this despite Robert Aldrich's generally indelicate direction.
**Rather shamefully, Warner Home Video's DVD cover art is completely dominated by Harrison Ford, while Gene Wilder is squished into a tiny corner, a sharp contrast to the original trailer which barely mentions Ford, even after his Star Wars success.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.