It may take you a while to get your bearings while watching this hypnotically funny curio about Harry Plotnik (Martin Priest), a Jewish mobster from the Bronx trying to reclaim his numbers operation after nine months in jail. For starters, the choice actors are unknowns or amateurs. No matter. The period details are immediately engaging: Clothes, makeup and slang have such a Sixties resonance you feel you've slammed into a time warp. And Robert Young's gritty black-and-white photography evokes the early films of John Cassavetes.
Writer-director Michael Roemer – whose first feature, Nothing but a Man, in 1964, dealt with racism in the South – didn't have to pore over Sixties artifacts to tell Harry's story with such flavorsome verisimilitude. Roemer actually shot this film, his second feature, in 1969 but only recently found the money to complete postproduction. In the two decades between, he taught film at Yale and directed two movies (Pilgrim, Farewell and Haunted) for public television. Shown last year at the Toronto and New York film festivals, Harry proved a surprise hit.
Now in general release, the film is notable for its acute, uproariously witty social observations. As Harry, Priest sports the droll deadpan of a man who has learned to inure himself to life's shocks, such as rival hoods and a congressional committee on crime. Only one thing can twist Harry's features: his family, including his pesky sister (Ellen Herbert), his embittered former wife (Maxine Woods), his pregnant daughter (Sandra Kazan), whom he hasn't seen since her toddler days, and a brother-in-law (the splendid Ben Lang) who runs a catering business.
Intimations of his mortality – he is misdiagnosed as having heart trouble – incite Harry to make peace with family, friends, God and the Mob. Roemer gleefully tweaks Jewish weddings, dog-obedience classes, men's fraternal societies and all kinds of sexual and radical chic. Of course, such Sixties films as Goodbye, Columbus and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have trampled over similar terrain. But few can boast Roemer's light touch, brisk pacing and anarchic comic spirit. The passing of time has given The Plot Against Harry a lost-and-found quality that is both innocent and seductive.