Twilight Time pays homage to the big apple with HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK and NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE
It feels like New York has been the most photographed city in the world, with filmmakers from all ends of the moviemaking spectrum making a varied assortment of titles showcasing the diversity of the city in terms of both culture and experience. From King Kong to Ghostbusters to Annie Hall, New York has undergone the kind of visual transformation only a city of its kind could achieve. One of the best aspects about New York-set films is the way they’re able to capture the spirit of the city during each specific time in history, regardless of what kind of story is being told. Taxi Driver famously showed the madness stemming from the manic state of 1970s New York, while They All Laughed created a fantasy of what the city could be and on some level, always has been. Yet it’s interesting to watch films about a New York of the past told from the point of view of the present made by filmmakers who grew up calling the city their home. Even more interesting is what these directors and their insightful cinematic love letters say about what may perhaps be the most famous city in the world.
Turn of the century New York City provides the backdrop for Mark Rydell’s Harry and Walter Go to New York, a farcical tale of a pair of small time crooks, the titular Harry and Walter (James Caan and Elliott Gould, respectively), who find themselves in prison with Adam Worth (Michael Caine), a notorious and charming career criminal who has both men catering to his every whim. In an effort to exact revenge, Harry and Walter escape from jail and decide to steal a bit of Adam’s thunder by pulling off one of the largest bank heists of all time with the aid of unsuspecting radical newspaperwoman Lissa (Diane Keaton). Meanwhile, in Paul Mazursky’s 1950s-set Next Stop, Greenwich Village, an idealistic young man named Larry (Lenny Baker) decides to leave home and head to the New York community of Greenwich village, where he finds his place amongst a group of progressive artists. Through a life-altering amount of months, Larry finds himself in a complicated relationship with his girlfriend Sarah (Ellen Greene) and unable to escape the clutches of his overbearing Brooklyn mother Faye (Shelley Winters) as he pursues his dream of becoming an actor.
New York in 1976, the year both films were shot, was the epicenter of everything wrong with the country at the time. Deep recession was felt everywhere, and crime was at its highest, from serial killers to ruthless street gangs. The previous year’s infamous blackout saw a city all but collapse (an image the Bee Gees would famously pay tribute to) while a hedonistic decadence and a “to hell with it” attitudes towards law, order, and morality seemed to run rampant among the majority of the city. Many middle class families began flocking to the suburbs in what became known as “white flight,” while poor city management from every side saw a city heading straight for a social and economic collapse. Help wasn’t to be found in the country’s leaders, with two US Presidents from this era essentially telling the city “you’re on your own,” sentiments illustrated on the front pages of city newspaper headlines with Gerald Ford’s “Drop Dead” and Jimmy Carter’s “Heal Thyself.” The city managed to find a home on film, however, as many filmmakers looked to showcase the Big Apple’s withering away through stories featuring hardened and resilient characters who refused to let their city go down. Titles such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Night of the Juggler showed New York in its hellish glory while offering up protagonists who still believed in the city they called home.
Rydell’s Harry and Walter Go to New York is pure farce through and through, which is greatly aided by its turn of the century backdrop and vaudevillian motif. Not all the jokes land the way they should, but the ones which do make it worth sticking around for, namely Keaton’s overly enthusiastic radical and Caine’s pompous thief. His character in particular is deserving of his own movie as he portrays a criminal so skilled, charming, and with such an adoring public, he may as well be a movie star. Huge crowds gather to greet Adam upon his arrival in prison, while his cell is lavishly decorated and the title characters act as his servants. A fun-filled look at the haves and have nots, Rydell’s movie calls out the city’s classist origins as it manages an optimism and exuberant energy throughout. When Harry, Walter, and Lissa undertake their scheme to bring Adam down by beating him at his own game, the results are oddly touching. In a way, the plan hatched by the film’s two numbskulls, as well as the eventual outcome, retains the magical idea of New York as a city able to make anything happen.
Likewise, the autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village is brimming over with the kind of enthusiasm and idealism which could only be found in youth. The film’s main character is yearning for culture and excitement, which he hopes will lead him to establishing himself as the kind of modern 20th century man he’s always felt he should be. Mazursky does a perfect job of showing the distinctiveness between the two neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where Larry grew up, and Greenwich Village as a pair of worlds so far apart, yet right next door. Next Stop, Greenwich Village is a film about escape and reinvention where its inhabitants drown themselves in a romanticism that transcends the conventional society they’ve grown up with. A recurring theme in the film about a friend (Lois Smith) continuously threatening to commit suicide prompts Larry and the rest of their friends to her apartment for spur of the moment hangout sessions, signifying the Village as world which truly operates by its own rules. At the heart of things is the optimism and sense of possibility that can only come from youth existing and flourishing in a place like Greenwich Village, where the world is your oyster. It’s an existence Mazursky gets just right.
Although both Harry and Walter and Next Stop, Greenwich Village are die hard period pieces, neither title can avoid reflecting the bold state of moviemaking which came to define the 1970s. Next Stop, Greenwich Village certainly pushes the envelope in terms of daring content. An abortion scene is treated as a simple medical condition, and scenes between Larry and Faye echo the surge in psychoanalysis which was being reflected both in film and real life. Meanwhile, Harry and Walter is a bit of an exercise in genre blending, straddling the line between a pratfall-heavy comical farce and a piece of social commentary with slight political undertones. This certainly becomes more apparent the further the characters and their audience is pulled into the otherwise wacky tale. Each film in its own way has a free-flowing nature that’s not content to follow any specific blueprint in terms of plot, relying instead on the kind of real world magic a backdrop such as the big city can provide. It’s a far cry, of sorts, from the men who brought the likes of On Golden Pond and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to the screen, yet still rich in terms of storytelling.
The two films are sterling tributes to the eras in which they’re set, with both chronicling the transformation of the city while showing how past and present New York exist in terms of the people and the hunger each individual carries with them. Both are snapshots, without question, of the pulse of New York and how it defined the culture of the day. One of the strongest of shared traits each film imparts is the power of nostalgia and the specific mixture of vigor and warmth it contains. Perhaps no other city has had as many transformations as New York. As a result, who else would be better to bring the city of the past back to life than those who have lived it themselves? While both Rydell and Mazursky will be remembered for some of their more beloved titles, both Harry and Walter Go to New York and Next Stop, Greenwich Village remain some of the strongest cinematic testaments to the very real notion that anything is possible in New York.
Harry and Walter Go to New York and Next Stop, Greenwich Village are nov available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.