Judge Neal Solon is being called to testify as an unindicted co-conspirator.
"The week I go in, there's a ten percent drop…Turn your back and
everything goes to hell."
In 1969, director Michael Roemer (Nothing But a Man) and cameraman/co-producer Robert M. Young put together a film called The Plot Against Harry. It was a comedy—but test audiences didn't laugh, and distribution companies balked at releasing it. So Roemer tucked the film away in a closet somewhere. Twenty years later, he decided to show the movie to his kids.
Roemer took the film to be transferred onto videotape. While transferring it, the film technician began to laugh. After confirming that the technician did, indeed, find the film funny, Roemer realized that he hadn't been crazy to think that the film was funny after all. He took the The Plot Against Harry and began submitting it to film festivals, and after twenty years of waiting, it finally got the reception it deserved.
Facts of the Case
Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest, Nothing But a Man) is a small-time Jewish crime boss who runs a numbers racket out of his hotel in New York. Nine months ago, he was sent to prison. Now he's getting out, and expects to jump back into a business that is exactly the way he left it. Not surprisingly, things don't work out that way. From the moment that Harry sets foot outside the prison, things aren't quite right—his driver, Max (Henry Nemo), is late. It doesn't occur to Harry then, but this is the first sign that the world he knows is slowly unraveling.
In 1969, Philip Roth published his classic Portnoy's Complaint. It was released to wide critical acclaim and helped to define contemporary Jewish-American literature. Simultaneously, Roemer and Young were trying to distribute their small, comic gem of a film, also focused on the Jewish-American experience. Thirty-five years later, there are still few people who have heard of The Plot Against Harry, yet New Video has seen fit to release it in a worthy DVD package. I'm glad they did.
One thing that perplexes me is why this film did not get the attention it deserved in 1969. It is an obvious question that co-producers Roemer and Young ask themselves in the interview included as a supplement, but the answer is elusive. While I won't give away their theories, I will put forth my own.
By the end of the 1960s, the writings of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow had proven that there was an audience for fiction detailing the Jewish-American experience. Portnoy's Complaint was a number one bestseller in the same year that The Plot Against Harry failed to even appear on the proverbial radar screen. Disregarding the sexual obsessions of the titular character in Portnoy's Complaint, the Roth book and the Roemer/Young film deal with many of the same themes, caricatures, and plot devices, including, surprisingly enough, crippling constipation. The difference between the two is the self-awareness of the protagonists.
In Portnoy's Complaint, Alex Portnoy is an exaggeration, playing up the absurdities of the world around him. Roth uses a clever literary device to allow Portnoy's self-analysis to be center stage. We instantly know when to laugh, because Portnoy essentially points at the humor and flails wildly.
Conversely, the titular character in The Plot Against Harry is an understatement. Harry Plotnick is unaware of the absurdity around him. He doesn't cry out to be laughed at; instead, Martin Priest, as Harry, plays the straight man to Roemer's script, a script that subtly draws out the humor in his life. Priest never plays up a joke, let alone overplays one. Priest's performance is so deadpan that it's easy to be baffled if you don't realize that you are supposed to laugh.
But you are supposed to laugh, and if you don't know that when you start the film, you do slowly realize it as you are drawn in. Harry Plotnick is a man who is self-involved enough to miss the evolution of the world around him. He is mildly paranoid, but about all the wrong things: he hides his profession from his doting sister and uses a false name in the hospital, but he trusts that his grunts are loyal. His obliviousness and reluctance to evolve contribute to his becoming less important, and his ex-wife's family and his parole officer drive him to need honest employment. He decides to go into the kosher catering business with his "ex-brother-in-law" Leo (Ben Lang, Bye Bye America), but even in this, he can't escape his past.
While Harry is the focus of the film, the rest of the cast turns in good performances as well. The most notable are Henry Nemo's performance as Harry's driver and right-hand man, and Ben Lang's performance as Leo. The saddest part of The Plot Against Harry's cold initial reception is that no one who appears on screen here went on to find much success in the film world. Most appeared in no more than two films after The Plot Against Harry.
Considering its origins, The Plot Against Harry looks and sounds incredible. The rich, black and white picture is presented in anamorphic widescreen. There are some noticeable specks, but none that detract from the experience. The stereo audio track, too, does its job solidly, conveying the dialogue and ambient noise without unnecessary fanfare.
Rounding out this presentation on DVD are two worthwhile extras. The first is a pair of filmmaker biographies. On most discs, biographies are uninformative and redundant; in this case, both contained information that I could not find about either filmmaker by simply searching the internet. They include references to work on films not mentioned in either filmmaker's IMDb entries, and information about what they are doing now.
The second, more substantial extra is a 35-minute-long conversation between the filmmakers, Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young. It is unclear whether the conversation was organic or prompted by questions from an interviewer, but we see the two men talking about their pasts—about working together, The Plot Against Harry, and why they ultimately went their separate ways. Roemer tends to dominate the conversation, but both men participate actively, and the conversation is worth watching from start to finish.
The Plot Against Harry has been hailed as a great, undiscovered classic, and I can't disagree. The laughs I got weren't belly laughs. They were quiet laughs that matched the humor on screen, but they were plentiful. Both times I watched it, this film put a smile on my face for the better part of eighty minutes. As an added benefit, I got to watch a 1960s period piece that looks and feels authentic because it was actually filmed back then. The only thing that made me look twice was Harry's car phone. Did they have those in the 1960s? And how did they work with all those wires?
Harry Plotnick is hereby found not guilty and released from the digital judicial system. As for the charges against him in the New York State courts, I'm afraid he's out of luck. They're well beyond my jurisdiction.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• The Plot Against Harry: A Look Back
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