The Cosmic Comedy of “The Plot Against Harry”

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Michael Roemer’s second professional feature, “The Plot Against Harry,” from 1969, should have become an instant classic—of American Jewish cinema, of gangster movies, of film comedy, and of bold creativity on a low budget. Instead, it failed to find distribution, went unreleased, and was written off as a loss by its producers. The movie languished essentially in Roemer’s closet until he showed it around, two decades later. By then, its time had come: it won acclaim at Cannes and other festivals and, in 1990, was commercially released at last. (It opens this Friday at Film Forum, in a new restoration and a new 35-mm. print, and Roemer, who’s ninety-five, will be on hand opening night for a Q. & A.) Gratifying stories about lost masterpieces and redemptive rediscoveries make it all too easy to ignore the damage that’s done—in this case, to Roemer’s career and those of his actors, to the world of filmmaking, which missed out on the chance to draw inspiration from the path Roemer was blazing, and to two decade’s worth of viewers, who were denied an incisive portrayal of an era and its byways that also propounds a compelling world view.

The title character is Harry Plotnick (played by Martin Priest), the small-time head of a Jewish gang running a numbers racket. Harry is first seen in jail, enduring not humiliation or danger but merely boredom. But, as soon as he’s released, life gets a bit too interesting, as he is rattled by an onslaught of unwelcome events. Hopping into the back seat of his limousine (decked out with a car phone, an exotic luxury at the time), Harry is informed by his right-hand man, Max (Henry Nemo), that his underlings—mostly people of color—have grown restive in his absence. One, a Black man known as Big Julie (Julius W. Harris), has even stopped paying off and has gone independent. Harry, seeing that he’s at risk of losing his entire gambling enterprise, takes a desperate and perilous step: he asks a big-time mafioso (Ed Setrakian) to send a message to Julie.

Harry’s troubles are not limited to the gambling business. The complications of his family life soon become even more labyrinthine. First, his sister Mae (Ellen Herbert), from whom he has successfully hidden his criminal life, comes to town. She quickly imposes a raft of social obligations on Harry, forcing him into a rope dance of lies and ruses and evasions. “Half the kids on the block, they went to jail; not Harry,” she boasts to friends. (He always made out that he was in real estate.) Then, in perhaps the most sublime scene of road rage in the history of cinema, Harry forces a vehicle off the road, and out of the (minor) wreck emerges his past, in the flesh, as if the car were a rolling episode of “This Is Your Life”: his ex-wife, Kay (Maxine Woods), and other long-estranged family members. “I always knew you’d be the death of us, Harry,” Kay says. She has no illusions about his character, but Harry latches on to another of the passengers—her cheerful and glad-handing brother Leo (Ben Lang), a kosher caterer who welcomes Harry warmly and whose business Harry promptly pushes his way into. Now comes a whirlwind array of social, familial, financial, legal, and even medical hassles that are simultaneously absurdly improbable and genuinely alarming.

Roemer’s great inspiration was to place this delightful but small-scale story—of one grifter’s struggles to keep his business afloat and put his family back together—on a large canvas, often seeming to show an entire society. The danger of Harry’s work and the fragility of his mini-empire of crime appear in the light of demographic changes, as in scenes where he is driven through his old stomping ground (which looks to be the Lower East Side). The residents are no longer white Jews but people of color. “The people, they want to bet with their own kind,” one longtime mobster friend tells him. “The neighborhood changed.” The wider world of bureaucratic obstacles and governmental power also becomes dramatically significant, by way of the involvement of parole officers, police, and lawyers; subpoenas, arrests, hearings, and trials. Eventually, Roemer escalates the action into the distinctive New York realm of mass media and the whiplash ironies that follow a rush of celebrity. From radio interviews and magazine photography to TV news and live broadcasts of charity telethons, Harry is launched out of his personal circle of acquaintances and into the public eye, where he learns the lessons of celebrity and its unintended consequences.

The breathless rush of action is brought to life with a teeming cast of clamorous characters who infuse frame after frame with hectic energy. Roemer unleashes his lurching panoply of dramatic incidents in a rapid succession of scenes with no breathing room between them. The result is like a piece of music with the rests taken out, one phrase crashing into the still echoing previous one, producing a nerve-jangling cluster of dissonances. This tumultuous manner is at the core of the director’s subtle and original sense of cinematic humor: he’s a master of the delayed reaction, the retrospective revelation of a comedic firecracker planted in a previous scene. A prime example is the giddy tumult of a fire alarm in a hotel lobby, which yields its extravagant payoff in a domestic dialogue scene that follows.

The strongest dissonance in “The Plot Against Harry” is an exuberant, knowing conflict between style and substance. The plot of “The Plot” is a near-miraculous chain of events bordering on absurdity, filled with outrageous coincidences and uproarious accidents and hurtling between local drama and grand public spectacles. But Roemer, working with the cinematographer Robert Young, films these events with keen-eyed and sharp-minded precision. His style, raising ordinary dramatic realism to a sort of exuberant hyperrealism, makes the absurd plausible. All these hyperbolic and chaotic doings are portrayed as just the way of the world, and the seeming disorder of Harry’s life comes off as the natural order of things.

The obvious artistic forebear of Roemer’s realistic depiction of one man’s nightmare scenario—the sense that the universe is indeed plotting against Harry—is, of course, Kafka. But Roemer extends the Kafkaesque tone by way of subtraction; what he subtracts is the divine. Harry may seem like God’s schlimazel, but his Job-like misfortunes are the jokes of a God who doesn’t exist, and Roemer, in his depiction of Harry’s Jewish world, shows what takes His place: folklore and community. The movie is filled with scenes of Jewish ritual—a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a bris—and the lore that goes with them, from songs and dances and a cantor’s liturgical chant to a mound of chopped liver sculpted into the shape of a chicken. But the religious and spiritual elements are almost entirely absent, Jewish practice subordinated to its social side—family pride and the photo ops to enshrine it. (Rather, the ritual that gets fuller attention is Harry’s induction, on Leo’s endorsement, into a Masonic-like fraternal order, in a ludicrous ceremony complete with neo-medieval costumes, solemn pageantry, and an over-the-top oath to which Harry must swear, “If I reveal the secret, may my tongue be ripped out by its roots and my heart be devoured by vultures.”)

Roemer, though Jewish, is an outsider to the New York Jewish world he depicts. (To my ear, the big tell is the absence of Yiddish in the film, which would doubtless have spiced the conversation of such characters.) Now ninety-five, he was born in 1928 in Germany. In 1939, he was taken to England, as part of the Kindertransport, before coming to the United States in 1945. He enrolled at Harvard and, as an undergraduate, directed a film, “A Touch of the Times,” which may be the first feature made in an American university. After graduation, he worked for an independent producer, Louis de Rochemont, and, in 1964, directed his first professional feature, “Nothing but a Man,” a groundbreaking independent film about a Black laborer in the South facing racism, unfair labor practices, and divisions within his community. Roemer has said that his experiences as a Jew under Nazism influenced the way that he saw the persecution of Black Americans under Jim Crow.

“The Plot Against Harry” manifests a similar mix of identification and distance. Without depicting even a hint of antisemitism, it nonetheless portrays a community that bears the enduring traces of exclusion. It’s a tale of Eastern European and Russian Jews transplanted to New York whose social and family lives reflect the ghetto-like isolation of the tenement neighborhoods where they were raised. Roemer (who indeed lived on the Lower East Side for years, starting in 1949) may be an outsider to that community, but he identifies with its outsidership and expresses his affinity artistically. He satirizes pretenses and strivings that are more or less social universals, but he doesn’t mock the oblivious vulgarity of Harry’s world, instead looking with admiration at its crude vitality and earnest expressivity. The characters’ unabashed sentimentality is the mere shimmer on the surface of great depths of mutual devotion. “The Plot Against Harry” is an enduring yekke masterwork. ♦


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