The 1970s films of Michael Caine: Harry And Walter Go To New York

The title card from Harry And Walter Go To New York
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Our look back at the 1970s films of Michael Caine continues with 1976 comedy/heist movie Harry And Walter Go To New York…

The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.

Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for Harry And Walter Go To New York lay ahead

Harry And Walter Go To New York poster

Directed by: Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, The Rose, The River)

Tagline: See Caan, Gould, Keaton and Caine fulfil their craving for high living – through means illegal, immoral and ultimately explosive.

Other Featured Geezers: James Caan as Harry Dighby, Elliott Gould as Walter Hill, Diane Keaton as Lissa Chestnut, Charles Durning as Rufus T. Crisp, Lesley Ann Warren as Gloria Fontaine, Carol Kane as Florence, Burt Young as Warden Durgom.

Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Peeper

What’s it all about, Alfie?: It’s 1892, and we open at a circus in Sudbury Massachusetts where struggling (rightfully so, their act is pants) vaudevillians Harry Dighby (James Caan) and Walter Hill (Elliott Gould and, in an important distinction, he’s not playing the Walter Hill who directed The Warriors and 48 Hours) are performing whilst simultaneously robbing their unsuspecting audience.

However, these naughty lads are soon caught and sent to prison where they cross paths with charming criminal mastermind Adam Worth (Michael Caine). Through a series of mishaps and misadventures, they end up photographing and destroying Worth’s latest heist plans, bump into an independent newspaper editor Lissa Chestnut (Diane Keaton), escape from prison, go to New York (the title doesn’t lie) and then finally attempt the daring heist themselves before Worth gets a chance.

Caine-ness: For the first time in a while Caine is not the lead but the antagonist. He comes and goes from the narrative but, luckily for us, is still around for a fair bit of the runtime. He’s by far the best thing about this film (I am admittedly biased though) and he is one of the few featured actors who is not completely miscast (Caan) or shamefully underused (Keaton).

Caine is playing a similar role to that of Noël Coward’s Mr Bridger character in The Italian Job. He’s a debonair crime boss called Adam Worth who is treated as royalty by not only his fellow underworld associates but by the law and wider polite society. He’s a millionaire who steals for the thrill of it and is completely unfazed by the prospect of a prison sentence.

Worth gets fan mail from children who want to be like him when they grow up and, when he arrives to be incarcerated, is greeted by throngs of fans desperate for his autograph (and some who swoon simply from being in his presence). Inside prison he is given preferential treatment (although he does seem to be missing his silver lobster forks) and is allowed to live in relative luxury before being released after only a few weeks. He also can play chess, and win, with his back turned to the board. So, all in all, he’s a pretty cool dude.

Michael Caine in Harry And Walter Go To New York

Interestingly Adam Worth was a real-life person, known by a moniker that you may be familiar with; the Napoleon of Crime. He was Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Moriarty and T.S Eliot’s (and later, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) inspiration for Macavity the Mystery Cat. The real Worth was a German born American (unlike Caine’s English incarnation) and a human (unlike Eliot’s cat incarnation) but had criminal jaunts across Europe, committing his most infamous crime in the UK, the theft of Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, from a London gallery.

He kept this painting with him for the next 25 years. When he travelled, he rolled the portrait up into the false bottom of his trunk and, in London, slept with the canvas stretched out beneath his mattress. He was eventually caught and arrested and spent his later years a broke alcoholic who, to capitalise on his notorious past, tried to design and sell a burglar proof safe but sadly nothing came of this more legitimate business venture.

All of that is way more interesting than any of the fictional exploits that occur in this film, begging the question why the filmmakers didn’t just do a biopic of Adam Worth instead of inventing two annoying new characters called Harry and Walter to focus on.

Caine is excellent in this (he was probably having a good time because he got to smoke a lot of fancy cigars), projecting an easy-going charm throughout, but he also manages to tap into a vein of genuine menace when needed. He can turn in an instant from urbane laidback raconteur to aggressive shouty pointy Caine when needed.

In the best scene of the film, he drags Harry and Walter before his safe cracking meeting and orders them to crack his safe, with one of them locked inside, with “16 minutes of air, we tried it with a chicken this afternoon.” In this moment he’s incredibly sinister, yet still maintains a warm affability. He’s entirely believable as a ruthlessly efficient crime boss yet also a beloved gentleman about town.

Caine-nections: This appears to be the first time that Caine has worked with the cast and crew of this movie (although it will not be the last as, before the decade is out, Caan and Gould will appear alongside Caine again).

This is the sixth time that Caine has played a career criminal after Gambit, Deadfall, The Italian Job, Get Carter and The Man Who Would Be King.

*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie.

Harry And Walter Go To New York

Best Non-Caine Actor: On paper this has a spectacular cast filled with genuine A-list stars and beloved character actors. It’s also helmed by a director of several Academy Award nominated movies. So how could it not be entertaining? Unfortunately, in practice, it somehow isn’t.

I think the film’s biggest flaw is that the central double act between Caan and Gould as Harry and Walter, that should be the heart of the film, doesn’t work. Although neither is outright bad, they do lack a certain chemistry and Caan, who is not known for his comedic chops, was miscast and seems uncomfortable with the song and dance sequences. Caan, who later dubbed the film “Harry and Walter go to the Toilet” admitted that he didn’t particularly want to make this movie and only did so because his agent told him it was a “commercial picture” that would be good for his career (it wasn’t).

The script is middling but could have been brought alive by casting actual comedians, or a tried and tested on-screen double act (Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon spring to mind), but Caan and Gould fail to make the so-so jokes work and instead end up just being incredibly irritating. Their signature Harry and Walter song becomes more and more tiresome every time they whip it out, which unfortunately is often (even the film coming to an end isn’t an escape for us poor viewers as it plays over the credits). The audiences within the film seem to like it though, so they are either very polite or have very poor taste.

Diane Keaton gives a likeable and energetic performance as the independent newspaper publisher who gets unwittingly embroiled in a heist, but there’s not much to her character and she doesn’t get a real chance to shine. Carol Kane and Burt Young also pop up and don’t really get to do anything funny or interesting either.

Best dog cameo:

A woman holding a dog in Harry And Walter Go To New York.

This little dog being held by Lesley Ann Warren, looking straight down the barrel of the lens, knows that he’s a star and really milks it here, giving the second-best performance after Caine. Fun fact; he later appeared as a background Ewok in Return Of The Jedi (This fact may not be 100% accurate).

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: This one was a real disappointment, given the pedigree of those involved, but it’s not surprising considering the apparent issues throughout production. It went massively over budget, nearly causing Columbia Pictures to go out of business. This was followed by awful previews after which it was heavily cut (with the director claiming most of the jokes were the victims) before being released upon an indifferent audience whereupon it flopped completely.

The jokes that remained are hackneyed (Harry tries to get the jump on a passing cyclist in order to steal his bicycle, “timing is everything” he says before missing completely and falling flat on his face) and overdone (unaccustomed to being in a fancy restaurant Harry and Walter drink from the finger bowl) and the less said about Walter donning his “Nubian slave costume” in the finale the better.

It’s such a shame as the final act should have been a lot of fun as it’s a great comic conceit. Worth is set to rob the bank after the climax of his mistress’ stage show but Harry and Walter plan to pip him to the post. However, they end up running late and so, in order to still beat Worth, they must postpone the ending of the show. So, Harry, and later Walter, go on stage to interrupt the performance and stall to the bemusement of the cast and conductor who eventually play along.

This could have been pretty funny but Caan’s unshakable air of tough guy menace makes it never quite land comedically (Harry’s manhandling of the female lead becomes just kind of unpleasant).

One positive is that the film looks good, it was shot by prolific cinematographer László Kovács, who worked on such celebrated films as Easy Rider, Ghostbusters and, er, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. There’s lots of attention to detail in the period setting (it’s chock full of vintage hats) but the general rule seems to be that the more expensive a comedy is the less funny it is, which is certainly the case here. I don’t particularly care how accurate the vintage car I’m seeing is if the jokes aren’t working.

Trivia (courtesy of IMDB):

This movie re-used some of the exteriors that were built on the 20th Century Fox lot for Hello Dolly! (1969). That was another big budget flop but, overall, a much better film despite its flaws.

This is the only screen appearance by Carmine Coppola not in a film directed by his son Francis Ford Coppola. Carmine plays the conductor during the finale (something that he was in real life).

Most of the male characters in the film have 1970’s long hairstyles or afros which were not accepted or socially acceptable in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps another reason why audiences rejected this film upon release was its flagrant disregard for authentic hairstyling.

Overall Thoughts: Caine at the top of his game is wasted in a sub-par comedy heist yarn that is neither funny enough to work as a comedy or exciting enough to work as a heist movie. Only worth watching for Caine completists or the morbidly curious. Visually it looks quite nice though!

Rating: 2/5 Scene Stealing Little Dogs (without Caine this would be a 1/5)

2 dogs from Harry And Walter Go To New York

Where You Can Watch This: This is currently available to rent or purchase from most streaming services.

Up Next: Caine goes to war again, but this time the blighter is on the side of the Germans and he’s after Churchill! It’s the John Sturges classic; The Eagle Has Landed.

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