Monday 21 December 2015

Harry in Your Pocket [1973]

HARRY IN YOUR POCKET is an American crime caper film that was directed by Bruce Geller and originally released by United Artists in September 1973.  It stars James Coburn, Michael Sarrazin, Trish Van Devere and Walter Pidgeon. It tells the story of two youngsters who are taught the art of the pickpocket by a pair of experienced criminals.

James Coburn was an intriguing man.  If you look him up on imdb you'll see he racked up 173 credits during his career.  Impressive.  But look a little closer and you'll also see that 62 of these, over a third, came before THE GREAT ESCAPE [1963] which was his big break in the film business.  He wasn't particularly good looking, he didn't have an impressive physique and he seemed to age prematurely.

James Coburn as Harry
What he did have was a suave manner, an anti-authoritarian attitude and a cheerful but 'don't mess with me' air exemplified by his shit-eating grin.  So he was perhaps lucky that his career coincided with a period in cinema when such heroes, like James Bond, were in vogue and on into the Vietnam / Watergate era when cocking a snook at the establishment was popular.  He could be described as a more debonair Steve McQueen.  He had a greater range than McQueen though.  McQueen was most at home in tough thrillers but Coburn could do the lot.

HARRY IN YOUR POCKET comes at what I reckon is the end of Coburn's peak period.  After the mid-1970s he increasingly seemed to make slick, superficial mainstream pictures.  He was approaching 50 at this point and too old to maintain the persona from his younger days. So it's perhaps a sign of things to come that he plays a father figure here, albeit one still young enough to have a father figure of his own.

Harry and father figure / mentor Casey
Harry is a pickpocket, specifically a cannon, which is to say he is the most important team member, the one who does the actual pickpocketing.  That's right: pickpocketing is apparently a team game.  Harry's mentor Casey (Walter Pidgeon) is the man who identifies the target and indicates where he / she is carrying the item.  Sandy (Trish Van Devere) is the distraction, which usually involves her bending over in a short skirt.  Ray (Michael Sarrazin) is the guy to whom Harry passes the item almost as soon as it has been pickpocket.

Sandy and Ray
It works this way because Harry's number one rule is 'Harry does not hold.  Ever.'  Which means he never holds on to the goods after he has pocketed them.  He always passes them on to Ray.  Obviously this is so that Harry can never be pinched by the cops while Ray who has played no part in the lift can wander off unmolested.  I love all this kind of stuff: the basic techniques of an activity which I would otherwise never know.  As such the natural home for it is the caper movie because it lends itself to scenes involving teaching or rehearsals.

Harry explains that they must always travel first class, stay in the best hotels and, excepting Sandy, wear a jacket and tie.  This way they cultivate the impression of being upper class and, therefore, above suspicion; which is a rather neat way of using class snobbery to your advantage.  Harry also tells them that, counter-intuitively, he dislikes working events where there will lots of rich targets; this is because such places usually have very tight security.  All of this knowledge and expertise comes together of course at the film's climax: a dressage competition (which is another signifier of class).

Caper films are more interesting than they initially appear.  They are generally the only crime films in which the audience hopes the criminals get away with it; imagine having that attitude for a serial killer picture.  Or indeed something like J. C. Chandor's MARGIN CALL [2011] about the economic collapse.  It's probably because there's usually a strong comedic element to the caper movie, as the name itself suggests.  That's not true is every case though: a film I wrote about long ago - Jean-Pierre Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE [1970] is about as serious as they come but I was still rooting for Messrs Delon, Montand and Volonte.

Harry has his eye on Sandy from the word go (note Sandy beautifully framed in the mirror)
The other part of this film which works very well is the love triangle between Harry, Ray and Sandy.  Harry takes both of them on as students basically because he wants to get into Sandy's knickers.  But Sandy is a smart, loyal young woman who stands by her man, until he starts to get jealous of course.  If you have any experience of that emotion then you know how corrosive it can be; if you don't, this film will make it plain to you.  In my review of Vincent Sherman's ICE PALACE [1960] I wrote about how the film's most successful element is the torment felt by Carolyn Jones's character who is torn between the man she loves and the man she betrayed.  She ends up with neither and the heartache she suffers in consequence is palpable.  That would make a good themed double bill with HARRY IN  YOUR POCKET for this reason.  Two films which show the destructive power of love.

Trish Van Devere as Sandy
Trish Van Devere is terrific as the object of the men's desires.  Sadly she didn't make many films: according to imdb she hasn't had a screen role in over 20 years so the chances of seeing her again must be slim. Several of those she did make are with her husband George C. Scott.  The only other films of hers that I have seen are two of these, both ghost stories from 1980: Peter Medak's THE CHANGELING and George Bowers' THE HEARSE.  The former is miles better than the latter which is one of the most tedious and least frightening horror films I have ever seen.

Michael Sarrazin as Ray
Which brings me to Michael Sarrazin who stars in the least frightening horror film I have ever seen, namely J. Lee Thompson's THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD [1975].  It's terrible so I won't bang on about here; suffice it to say that if you feel compelled to seek it out you can't say you weren't warned.  Apart from that Sarrazin had what I think is a disappointing career which started big in Sydney Pollack's THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY? [1969].  he rode the wave of that film's success for another 7 or 8 years, encompassing only 10 films, and that was pretty much that.  A couple of Delirious and may (or may not) feature here in the future: the sci-fi thriller THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY [1972] and FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY [1973] an expensive TV movie of which the grand curmudgeon Leslie Halliwell remarked "It was never a true story in the first place."  Sarrazin continued to work of course, mainly in TV, and died in 2011.

Walter Pidgeon as Casey
The old-timer Casey, Harry's own mentor, is played by veteran Walter Pidgeon, whose career dates back to the silent era.  He is most famous though for his work in the 1940s, notably as Mr Miniver in MRS MINIVER [1942] and the lead role in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY [1941], both of which won Oscars for Best Picture, the latter, notoriously, beating CITIZEN KANE.  Delirious fans will probably remember him more for playing Dr Mobius in FORBIDDEN PLANET [1956].  He's really good in this movie though, playing one of cinema's few septuagenarian coke-fiend pickpockets.

The behind-the-camera credits aren't remarkable.  Director Bruce Geller was a TV man for whom this film was his only cinema credit.  He did however create MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and thus made a mark which has lasted for nearly fifty years, if you include the Tom Cruise series of films.  Writers James D. Buchanan and Ronald Austin also penned the script for the shonky but fun TV movie THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET [1973].  The score is by one of the all-time great film composers Lalo Schifrin and it is of course terrific.


  1. I have only seen this film once and that was many many years ago...but it stuck with me so I also must have liked it! I also agree that The Changling is a solid ghost story and that The Hearse has four flat tires.