'Plot': This ghost from the past delights

May 16, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

This appears to be a season of movies about the afterlife and now here comes "The Plot Against Harry" -- with a difference. It isn't about the afterlife, it is the afterlife.

It was dead. Dead as in kaput, finished, forgotten, vanished. Made in 1969 on a shoestring budget by film professor Michael Roemer, it was declared unreleasable and shelved. Rediscovered serendipitously in 1989, its weird comic tone turned out to be in sync with our age where it had not been with its own. And like a ghost, here it is, among us again.

The movie, which will be shown at 7:30 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Baltimore Film Forum's Jewish Film Festival, is an artifact from the year of its inception. But what it recalls more than other movies of the era is the great tradition of Jewish-American literature that burst into the mainstream in the late '60s when Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedmen, Herbert Gold, Jules Feiffer and a slew of others brought comic angst to the masses.

"The Plot Against Harry" has the tone of a Friedman short story or novel and it made me lament this acerbic genius' decision to sell out as a screen writer. Anyway, "Harry" follows the misadventures of a sleepy-eyed hipster/gangster played by Martin Priest who looks like a cross between Lenny Bruce and Shelly Berman. The "plot" against him appears to be nothing less than creation itself.

Released from prison, Harry keeps finding aspects of his life shriveling. His numbers racket it being taken over by blacks, he's being sold out by the Mafia, his heart is swelling, the IRS is auditing his taxes, his accountant is burning his books and starting fires, his underlings keep betraying him, and his ex-brother-in-law has a deal for him. Are we talking schlemiel or what?

The setting is Jewish New York and Long Island, beautifully recorded in pristine black and white, as if released from a time capsule. There's no forced preciousness here or sentimentality; this isn't Barry Levinson's lovingly re-created milieu but a spontaneously observed milieu. It's extremely captivating.

For ticket information, call 889-1993.

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