Here's a remarkable surprise, an excellent independent comedy that was filmed in 1970 but shelved as unreleaseable when audiences didn't laugh and distributors turned their backs. Twenty years later, the filmmaker made a VHS transfer to show his kids, and the telecine operator thought it was hilarious. Several film festival successes later, Michael Roemer's The Plot Against Harry became an independent hit - long after it had been written off as a total failure.
Officially a 1989 release, The Plot Against Harry is like a New York time capsule back to 1969, a droll comedy with a loveably luckless leading man who becomes sympathetic in spite of himself. Its style has been compared to Woody Allen and John Cassavetes but isn't really like either of those films. The big disappointment in 1990 was that we would have liked to see the actors do more work - they're marvelous - but they were all twenty years older.
Harry Plotnik is the sad sack of the New York underworld, a numbers middle-manager who probably was given the easy job years before and immediately took the easy money and cushy lifestyle as a given. His slightly sunken face and tired eyes know a good monetary deal from a bad one, but apart from that he's a fairly confused guy. His racket isn't well organized and he hasn't the gangster instincts to get things back in order after a short jail term - his underlings just walk away with the business while he watches helplessly. Several films noir dealt with obsolete hoodlums being deposed by evolving rackets (I Walk Alone, The Gangster) but Harry simply realizes he's being eased out by sharper sharpies. Instead of being met with violence, he's just plain ignored. It's a humiliation he has no choice to accept.
At the same time Harry rediscovers his family, a delightful bunch. His ex-wife Kay is quietly amused to introduce him to his own grown daughters. One is married to a bookkeeper that gets entangled in Harry's accounts, ledger books that should have "indict me" written on the cover. The other daughter is a flighty model who wants to run away to get married.
Harry's only response to life's problems is to throw money at them, a habit Kay knows well. Immediately after the reunion, he shows up with fur coats for all three of his girls. At first Harry seems to be ingratiating himself with his estranged relatives because he'll need a new business, but their attention and company grow on him. Without becoming sentimental in the slightest way, we see Harry re-orient himself to a happier life.
As a comedy, The Plot Against Harry works almost entirely with droll situations and amusing character interaction - there are no laugh lines or comedy contrivances. Harry's maladroit chauffeur isn't very smart, but Harry soon realizes that yelling at him does no good. Leo, the new business partner (Ben Lang), is an always-smiling and ingratiating fellow who asks Harry to don a yarmulke in his kosher kitchen, and later tries to help salvage Harry's reputation by letting him join a cockeyed secret society in a silly ceremony. Harry's newfound philanthropy is clearly an attempt to buy back his good name, but after seeing the "charming" fund-raisers sink their claws into his bank accounts, we're soon solidly on his side. In one hilarious scene Harry appears before a crime-busting committee. He's so confused that he tries to plead the 5th Amendment, and then has to be reminded that he's a friendly witness.
Harry's drama works itself into mock-tragedy mode, as he thinks that he's in line for an imminent fatal heart attack. He's stricken while backstage at a telethon, in what might be taken as a parody of Chaplin's Limelight. The marvel is in the perfect casting and consistent tone ... a bit slow but always attuned to character. With modern audiences now more appreciative of ethnic comedy, The Plot Against Harry now plays like a lost American classic.
New Video's DVD of The Plot Against Harry is a fine enhanced transfer of a very good B&W element, showing off the film's crisp camerawork and snappy pace. We really like the actors, especially leads Martin Priest, Maxine Woods and Ben Lang, and it's a shame that they had to wait twenty years to see their good work appreciated.
Filmmaker Michael Roemer was already very well-known in film circles as the director of the earlier independent film Nothing But a Man, a movie about race relations that was reportedly a favorite of Malcolm X. He and cameraman-partner Robert M. Young appear in a crudely-shot but entertaining interview piece, telling their entire career story. Roemer says he interviewed real call-girls and befriended Harlem numbers kingpin Bumpy Johnson as research, and we feel his disappointment as he explains how test audiences watched the film in bored silence and distributors walked out of screenings. We're just happy that he didn't junk the film or lose track of it, as has happened with other "orphaned" pictures like Incubus. The Plot Against Harry didn't have stars, big laughs or an easily-communicated genre hook; it wasn't until several years later that tiny independent pictures like Hester Street started finding success despite the dominance of studio product in the theater chains.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Plot Against Harry rates: