Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Harry in Your Pocket (1973)

Sandy (Trish Van Devere) and Ray (Michael Sarrazin) meet cute at a train station when he awkwardly steals her watch, and her bags are stolen by somebody else when she’s politely going after him to get it back. Ray’s got a bit of bad conscience about the whole thing, and they hit it off as well, so he offers to give Sandy a couple hundred dollars once he’s sold off his other ill gotten gains.

They don’t only land in bed but sort of team up, following the small time crime grapevine to a job opportunity. Harry (James Coburn) the suave yet cold boss of a wire gang (a small team of dedicated pickpockets) is looking for new partners, seeing as he’s only working with aged pickpocket – and his sole friend - Casey (Walter Pidgeon) right now. Thanks to Sandy – who’d be convincing even if Harry didn’t take a shine to her – Harry takes them on despite Ray’s dubious talent and lack of a knack for his chosen criminal enterprise. It’s going to be a learning experience.

Various factors – among them a developing love triangle, Ray’s overambition and Casey’s love for cocaine – just might end up ruining a good thing.

Harry in Your Pocket’s director Bruce Geller is best known as creator/writer/producer of TV shows like Mission Impossible and Mannix and less for his only cinematic film as a director (he’s also responsible for TV movie The Savage Bees but nobody’s perfect). It is an unfairly overlooked little film, though I’m not exactly surprised by how comparatively little seen Harry is, for the film’s copious charms aren’t exactly on the obvious side.

This is a film, after all, you’ll compliment with adjectives like “quiet”, “unassuming”, or “consciously small-scale and dramatically inconspicuous” which is not an approach to filmmaking that will help many people notice a film. It certainly doesn’t help the film either that Geller’s direction is not at all on the flashy side – in fact, two or three scenes show his TV roots rather clearly. There is, in particular, a pretty damn tacky scene of slow motion seagull feeding to ignore, but if you do ignore these few moments of tosh, you realize Geller is usually just stepping back to make room for his actors and their characters, doing exactly as much as he needs to help them while otherwise getting out of their way.

Which is obviously the right decision for a film this disinterested in heightened drama or rather, one this interested in the small drama of human interactions and the musical qualities of pickpocketing. The quartet of main characters (the film not really features anyone else as more than objects for the characters to work on) earns Geller’s trust well: Coburn is letting go of a lot of his typical acting tics (I’ve never seen the man acting less with his teeth), while Van Devere manages to effortlessly sell Sandy as an independent woman despite her part in the love triangle (where the film to my surprise and approval still doesn’t treat her as an object for the men to fight over but as an active participant) so much that she dominates the audience’s sympathy for much of the film. Sarrazin’s believably inexperienced, and Pigeon shows all the dignities and indignities of age in a profession not made for old people (I mean pickpocketing, not acting).

While the film slowly meanders through not much of a plot in which only a handful of small scale dramatic things happen, it does so in the full knowledge that actual people like you and me live and die on this small scale. The film clearly wants its audience to let go of the crutches of melodrama without going all arthouse on it. It works beautifully too for most of the time. I, at least, found myself quietly enraptured by the proceedings, in sympathy with the characters and actually touched by a quietly sad ending that even shows one of the characters committing a quietly heroic act – on a human scale.

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