NOTE: The promotional stills used here do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray under review.
When it was released in 1976, the period-set comedy Harry and Walter Go to New York was murdered by critics and ignored by audiences. Director Mark Rydell (The Cowboys, The Rose) was blamed for failing to translate a good script to the screen, while Rydell blamed studio interference for removing all the funny. The film still seems overstuffed at its current running time (a little shy of two hours), so who knows what's true?
Looking at Harry and Walter now, it's not a mess. But it's also not quite a movie. I enjoyed my time with Harry and Walter, but that's thanks to the impossibly likable and talented ensemble cast. Pretty much everyone here is "I'd watch them read the phone book" quality, which is good, because arguably the phone book has more believable characters and better construction than this film.
James Caan and Elliott Gould are the titular duo, a couple of failed vaudevillians that become failed criminals. Caan's Harry is a would-be mastermind with streetwise chutzpah but no real smarts. He can't even read. Gould's Walter, meanwhile is a child-like naïf, who just likes putting on a show, and unwittingly has some of the smarts that Harry needs.
If Harry could be anybody, he would be Adam Worth, Michael Caine's character. Worth is not only an incredibly successful bank robber, he's also suave as hell. Women love him, maître d's love him, even the cops love him. The only person who seems not to favor Adam Worth is bank manager Rufus T. Crisp, played by Charles Durning with the perfect amount of indignant bluster. Having been "gotten" by Worth once, he has designed a new tougher bank vault to ensure no further robberies occur.
That uncrackable vault becomes the MacGuffin, with Caine's gentleman robber on a collision course with Harry and Walter to see who can rob the thing first. The problem is that the film takes up more than half of its running time just to get Harry and Walter in position to compete with Adam Worth. And by the way, the bank isn't even in New York. It's in Lowell, Massachusetts. New York is the setting for less than twenty minutes of the whole film and somehow it gets third billing.
New York is the home of Lissa Chestnut (Diane Keaton), a do-gooder who becomes hooked up with Harry and Walter because she thinks Adam Worth is a jerk. If this were a Hope and Crosby Road movie, Keaton would be the Dorothy Lamour. Lissa runs an underground paper that employs a cavalcade of overqualified character actors given not enough to do, such as Jack Gilford, Carol Kane, Kathryn Grody, Dennis Dugan, and David Proval.
The cast also boasts the likes of Burt Young, Burt Remsen, Val Avery, George Gaynes, the imposing Ted Cassidy, and the hilarious Lesley Ann Warren, as a mediocre opera singer who leads with her chest.
Everyone is acting up a storm, but the movie provides more pleasant smiles than outright laughs. Maybe if there were a few more gutbusters, it would better distract from the flimsy plotting of the flick's second half. The finale turns the underground newspaper crew into amateur safecrackers while Harry and Walter put on a show nearby. If that sentence doesn't make much sense on its own, trust me that more context would do little to help. (Also, I'm not sure if Elliott Gould's use of shoe polish blackface in the finale is supposed to be a callback to the interrogation scene in The Long Goodbye, a film in which Gould and director Mark Rydell both appeared, but either way I doubt it was funny to anyone apart from Gould and Rydell, even in 1976.)
Harry and Walter wants to be a throwback to the comedy-duo vehicles of yore, but it only works in fits and starts. Despite some moments of genuine fun, it should come as no surprise that the comedy duo of Caan and Gould were never called upon to make another picture.