Michael Roemer and The Plot Against Harry

Martin Priest and Ben Lang in Michael Roemer’s The Plot Against Harry (1969)

For decades, Michael Roemer was known even to dedicated cinephiles for a single feature. “One of the great American independent films and one of the great films about how racism defines African American masculinity,” wrote Amy Taubin for Artforum in 2012, “Nothing But a Man (1964) is as convincing and emotionally agonizing as it was when I first saw it at the New York Film Festival in 1964.”

Interest in Roemer’s other work was roused last summer when the Film Desk released a new 35 mm print of Vengeance Is Mine (1984), starring Brooke Adams as a woman returning to her childhood home in Rhode Island. In the New York Times, Wesley Morris called the film “a masterpiece of direction, nothing too flashy but everything true, right.”

Now the Film Desk is launching a new 4K restoration of Roemer’s brisk and oddly endearing 1969 comedy, The Plot Against Harry. Starting Friday, a newly struck 35 mm print will screen at New York’s Film Forum for two weeks before it heads to Los Angeles on September 6 and then to Chicago on November 15.

Martin Priest stars as Harry Plotnick, a low-level con who runs a numbers racket in New York. Having just served a nine-month sentence, Harry returns to the city to discover that one of his underlings is going rogue and cutting in on his territory. When Harry runs into his ex-wife and her family—literally; his car rams theirs—and sees his daughter for the first time in years, meets his granddaughter, and then eventually learns he’s got another daughter, he starts entertaining the idea of going straight.

His brother-in-law (Ben Lang), a perpetually smiling teddy bear, manages a kosher catering service, and Harry proposes buying out the company and going into business with him. Meanwhile, the law is closing in. “Part of the grace and beauty of The Plot Against Harry stems from the fact that although it has at least three dozen characters and a complicated plot, it glides past the viewer with the greatest of ease,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader in 1990. “The basic tone is comic and satiric, but the comedy and satire almost never take the form of outright gags; they come across as affectionate rather than scathing or malicious.”

Rosenbaum noted that Roemer spent a year immersed in the milieu, “working as a caterer’s assistant at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings in Long Island,” and interviewing Manhattan lawyers, racketeers, and call girls. Robert Young, Roemer’s close friend and frequent producing partner, shot The Plot Against Harry in black and white, crowding frames with the unchoreographed bustle of city streets, subway cars, court rooms, dog shows, bars, and restaurants. “We shot all over New York,” Roemer told Nicolas Rapold in 2012. “Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan. But we very much wanted to avoid New York as a location. We used it, but there’s no Empire State Building—we avoided landmarks. There’s lots of places in New York, and that was more what we were interested in.”

When Roemer screened The Plot Against Harry for friends, associates, and potential distributors—“people who were entirely friendly to the film,” as he told A. S. Hamrah at Screen Slate last year—no one laughed. Roemer shelved the movie, wrote it off as a tax loss, and forgot about it until, nearly twenty years later, he decided to have all of his films transferred to video for his family’s archive. The technician hired to do the job thought The Plot Against Harry was hilarious, so on a whim, Roemer sent prints to the New York and Toronto Film Festivals. Audiences loved it, and so did Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who gave it raves on their show, At the Movies.

The Harvard Film Archive presented a Roemer retrospective last fall, and Jake Perlin, the founder of the Film Desk, noted in his introduction that audiences have always needed time to catch up with the filmmaker’s work. Born in Berlin in 1928, Roemer escaped to the UK via the Kindertransport in 1939 and arrived in the U.S. in 1945 to study at Harvard. That’s where he met Robert Young. Years later, after Roemer had made nearly a hundred educational films and Young was working in the documentary department at NBC, they set out to make their first feature, Cortile Cascino (1962), a documentary on the slums of Palermo.

“Animal slaughter, child labor, crippling poverty, and prostitution are all presented as facts of life in Cortile Cascino,” writes Perlin, and NBC wasn’t having it. The broadcast was cancelled, but fortunately, “the person tasked with junking the negative admired the film and made a dupe.” Even Vengeance Is Mine, which screened at the Berlinale and the London Film Festival, couldn’t score a theatrical release.

The Plot Against Harry was out on DVD for a while before it went out of print. Now, though, the lost and lively world it conjures—middle-class, Jewish New York in the late 1960s—is finally, gloriously revived. In his review of the film for Screen Slate, Chris Shields finds “music in the voices it captures—in the sweet, nasal drone of Harry’s brother-in-law, in the quizzical Eastern European inflection of his sister’s friends, in his ex-wife’s clipped irritation tinged with compassion—and The Plot Against Harry conducts its orchestra beautifully.”

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