Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Plot Against Harry

Yes, Harry Plotnick is a gangster, who runs the numbers game for the Jewish mob, but do not judge him too harshly. After all, the old school numbers racket always used to payout more of the take than state lotteries. Having just finished a nine-month prison stretch, Plotnick re-enters society right when other gangs are moving in on his territory. He also rather suddenly discovers he has a larger family than he realized in Michael Roemer’s nearly lost The Plot Against Harry, which is now playing at Film Forum.

Plotnick’s is well passed his Damon Runyon-esque prime and he knows it, but he is still bluffing his way through, because that is all he knows. Many of his numbers runners have defected to younger gangs that they also better identify with, in terms of ethnicity. He is so agitated by the current state of affairs, he nearly wrecks another car in a road rage incident.

As fate would have it, his former brother-in-law, Leo, is behind the wheel. Much to Plotnick’s surprise and embarrassment, Leo also happens to be driving the gangster’s ex-wife, Kay, their grown daughter Millie, and the son-in-law and granddaughter he never knew he had. It would seem to be an awkward start, but Leo takes it upon himself to pull Plotnick back into the family. Kay also decides to drop a bombshell of her own. When she walked out on Plotnick she was pregnant with their second daughter, Tillie, who is surprisingly willing to let him into her life, probably as a way of annoying her mother.

Shot in 1969 on the gritty streets of New York,
Plot only had a one-week Seattle theatrical engagement in 1971, until it was rediscovered and re-released to great acclaim in 1990. It is a wryly amusing mobster comedy that somewhat wistfully captures the end of the era for neighborhoodly gangs that observed some sort of code of honor. It is maybe not the comedy classic some critics make it out to be, but it is as funny as many of Jack Lemmon’s 1960’s comedies and has a similarly bittersweet vibe. You could think of it as the Zero Mostel gangster movie he never made.

Regardless, Martin Priest is wonderfully deadpan as the sour-faced Plotnick. It is a great showcase for the late actor, who mostly did episodic TV guest-starring gigs (including
The Reporter and East Side/West Side, which jazz record collectors might know from their soundtracks). He is very funny, especially when playing off Ben Lang as the big-hearted, slightly naïve Uncle Leo. They get a nice Matthau-and-Lemmon rhythm going between them.

Maxine Woods and Sarah Christie are also both strikingly charismatic as Kay and Tillie. It is a shame this is Woods only credit and Christie would just make one further on-screen appearance, decades later. Apparently, making your debut in an unreleased film is not the best way to launch a career.

has a gently cynical sense of humor to go along with its street smarts. It captures late 60’s New York in a time-capsule kind of way, but Plotnick’s attitudes would have made him feel at home in Seinfeld at the peak of its run. It is just nice to see a ghost film like this could be resurrected years after the fact. Recommended for fans of gangster comedies, The Plot Against Harry is now playing in New York.