(director/writer: Michael Roemer; cinematographer: Robert Young; editors: Maurice Schell/Georges Klotz; music: Frank Lewin; cast: Martin Priest (Harry Plotnick), Ben Lang (Leo Pearlman), Henry Nemo (Max), Maxine Woods (Kay), Ellen Herbert (Mae), Jacques Taylor (Jack Pomerance), Jean Leslie (Irene Pomerance), Sandra Kazan (Margie), Max Ulman (Sidney, Harry’s lawyer), Henry Rothblatt (the lawyer), Ronald Coralian (Mel Skolnik), Margo Solin (Millie), Paul Zayas (Fernando), W. Harris (Big Julie), Angelo DeLuca (Natale), Ed Setrakian(Vitale), Stephen Cheng (Jimmy Hong), Nicholas Ponzini (Tony), Ernesto Gonzalez (Carlos), Ruth Roemer (Linda Skolnick), Christopher Cross (Telethon MC), Holly Solomon (Call Girl), José Ocasio (Jesus), Sylvia Glickman (Miss Pike); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Michael Roemer/Robert Young; New Yorker Video; 1989)

Wickedly funny and observant slice of life NYC gangster pic, that’s decidedly Jewish, quirky and anarchistic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Wickedly funny and observant slice of life NYC gangster pic, that’s decidedly Jewish, quirky and anarchistic. The surprise cult comedy/drama hit was shot in 1969 and put on the shelf when no distributor was willing to take a chance on it when test audiences didn’t laugh, but it was released in 1989 to play in the NYC Film Festival. Rave reviews gave this pic a new lease on life, and it got its long awaited theatrical release–only twenty years too late to help the splendid aging unknown cast advance their careers.

In this low-budget black and white shot indie, writer-director Michael Roemer (“Nothing But A Man”) makes good use of location shots in the Big Apple, exhibits a winsome dead-on droll humor and gets a super performance from Max Priest–the washed-up small-time mob leader with a deadpan expression (perhaps equaling Buster Keaton’s) that seemingly can absorb all kinds of bad news without letting on he’s in pain.It’s like a time capsule pic, as it takes us back to the 1960s when mafioso types were riding around the city in big gas-guzzling Cadillacs, stylish dames were sporting bee-hive hairstyles, Go-Go dancers were in vogue and there was liberal John Lindsay’s racially changing NYC that altered forever the way urban America was to be from now on.

The dour small-time Jewish racketeer Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest) is released on parole after serving a year sentence for his part in the numbers racket. Max (Henry Nemo), Harry’s portly hang-dog schlemiel assistant/errand boy/accountant/chauffeur, gives the released boss a ride in the boss’s special order big Cadillac, with two telephones–one for the driver and one in the back seat. While sitting in the back seat and making phone calls, Harry is informed by the dim-witted Max that things have changed, his Hispanic number runners quit to run their own operations in Spanish Harlem, the turf where Harry runs his numbers racket and where he was raised. Harry’s informed that the neighborhood is now made up mostly of people of color and they want to only deal with their own kind. The business is in further disarray as the Italian mob has muscled their way into Harry’s little empire he has built-up for years and have stopped protecting him and stopped his police protection by bribing the cops themselves. But that’s just the beginning of Harry’s woes, as he finds his naive (doesn’t know her brother is a gangster, as she thinks he was on vacation for a year) but pushy elderly pampered sister Mae (Ellen Herbert) has moved into his ritzy hotel and that he literally runs into his haughty ex-wife Kay (Maxine Woods), whom he hasn’t seen for some 18 years, when his car rear-ends her car. Harry thereby meets his married pregnant daughter Margie (Sandra Kazan), someone he last saw when she was a toddler, and later learns he has another daughter named Millie (Margo Solin) he never knew about and she’s modeling bras in a lingerie fashion show and aspiring for a career in showbiz and to elope with her photographer boyfriend. The luckless Harry has trouble explaining his contact with known criminals to his by-the-book female parole officer (Sylvia Glickman) and is threatened with jail; he finds he’s being audited by the IRS due to his unsatisfactory volunteer appearance at a televised congressional committee investigating organized crime; and that Max prevented the subpoenaed books from being taken by setting a hotel fire that burned the books but now has Harry being investigated for arson and obstruction of justice.

After passing out from all the strain, Harry is told at the hospital that he has a bad heart, it’s enlarged, and not to expect a long life. After called-out by his sister’s friend as a disgrace to the Jews, when she discovers he’s a jailbird on TV, Harry decides to turn over a new leaf and go legit and try to re-establish his middle-class Jewish roots–something he once only sneered at. Harry buys with $55, 000 from his gambling money the kosher catering business, owned by the synagogue (his ownership must be approved by the rabbi) and run by his ingratiating brother -in-law Leo (Ben Lang), and he generously lets Leo still run it to pay for his end of the partnership. Harry then becomes a generous donor to the charities run by his new-found relatives, the Pomerances (Jacques Taylor & Jean Leslie), as his image gets a makeover as a caring person. It’s a hoot as Harry’s trip back to respectability among his own people involves throwing money and fur coats at them, which they greedily accept despite having a low opinion of him. Harry seeks further acceptance into his tribe by joining a mystic knights fraternal lodge that Ben recommends him for, taking in a dog obedience class, attending a charity telethon, partying at a chic subway party for the rich wanting to experience what the working-class city dweller does when he commutes to work and, finally, being coaxed to wear a yarmulke in his kosher catering restaurant. Thinking he’s dying after another fainting spell, Harry confesses to all sorts of crimes and feels this will clear his name at last by showing him off as someone who has repented.Trouble is Harry learns from another doctor’s second opinion that he’s been misdiagnosed and doesn’t have heart trouble, just a bad case of constipation. It takes Harry’s cunning lawyer (Max Ulman), the lawyer to the mob, to work out a deal with the DA to get a reduced sentence for Harry’s further cooperation. But, at last, Harry is humanized and after being kicked around by everyone as if he were a soccer ball, he returns to the fold as a new and perhaps better man.

It’s a scream as a cutting satire on middle-class Jewish aspirations, their showy bar mitzvah rituals and of the almost tragic downfall of a two-bit gangster who didn’t have the heart for the rough business, just the will to lead a soft life. The cinéma-vérité pic looks authentic even if it’s covering familiar territory, and has the balls to make such an unsympathetic low-life criminal as Harry as an almost sympathetic heroic one by the end of the day.