Few films capture the bittersweet flavor of tristate-area life like The Plot Against Harry (1969). In it, Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest), a low-level criminal who’s created a mini empire running numbers in New York City is released from jail. Immediately, he’s thrust back into the fray—taking phone calls and placing bets in the back of his luxury car. Things have changed while Harry was inside, though; a former associate is muscling in on his territory. To get it back, he goes to the Italian mob for help. From this description, the film could be a gritty crime drama about the twilight days of a fading gangster, but this is only the tip of the iceberg in Michael Roemer’s hilarious, naturalistic comedy.
As if his criminal foibles weren’t enough, Harry’s trying to keep everyone happy. He plays the gentleman for his aged sister (Ellen Herbert) and her friends who don’t know he’s a racketeer. He runs into (literally, with his car) his ex-wife (Maxine Woods) along with the adult daughter he barely knows and a granddaughter he’s never met. He distractedly meets with his parole officer in the lobby of his hotel. He finds out he has another daughter who's modeling brassieres and giving her mother grief. He decides to go into the catering business with his brother-in-law, but trouble with the IRS comes along with it. Amidst the chaos, Harry is trying to do the right thing and find a way back into his family’s life and maybe even a way of going legitimate. It’s enough to give a guy a heart attack, and eventually, Harry collapses. A doctor tells him his heart is twice the size it should be—a nice symbolic touch.
The Plot Against Harry is an ode to urban Jewish life and the joy and pain in the ass that is family. Robert Young, an experienced documentary cinematographer, gives the film a vérité feel, capturing the noisy, vernacular comedy in all its exuberant specificity. In moments, he lends the circus surrounding its protagonist a Fellini-esque grace. While the mounting absurdity of the circumstances builds the comic architecture of Roemer’s film, much of its humor comes from its colloquialism and the particular dimension of truth found therein. There is music in the voices it captures—in the sweet, nasal drone of Harry’s brother-in-law, in the quizzical Eastern European inflection of his sister’s friends, in his ex-wife’s clipped irritation tinged with compassion—and The Plot Against Harry conducts its orchestra beautifully.
The Plot Against Harry screens tomorrow afternoon, May 20, on 35mm at Film Forum, the premiere of a new print. It is part of the series “The City: Real and Imagined.”