Harry In Your Pocket
There have been plenty of heist movies over the years and plenty of con game movies. But for those interested in a form of theft that’s more of a cross between a robbery and a grift, the choices are far more limited. In fact, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of pickpocket movies that have been made and still have enough left over to lift a wallet. Among the most stylish of these is 1973’s “Harry in Your Pocket,” a film that works better as a primer on the artistry of the wire mob than as a drama or caper movie.
The wire mob is an organized gang of pickpockets and accomplices that rob unsuspecting marks of their pokes (wallets). These are just a few of the terms that viewers will pick up by watching “Harry in Your Pocket.” The Harry in question is played by James Coburn, and he’s such a smooth pro that he’s never been arrested. As the film begins, he arrives in Seattle and teams up with old vet Casey (Walter Pidgeon) to assemble a crew. Although Harry and Casey could seemingly have their pick of pros, Harry soon settles on Ray (Michael Sarrazin), a somewhat clumsy novice, and his girlfriend, Sandy (Trish Van Devere). It’s pretty clear to everyone that the reason the couple is along for the ride is that Harry has the hots for Sandy.
The plot of “Harry in Your Pocket” is relatively basic, and it all revolves around the rivalry between Harry and Ray for Sandy’s attention. However, that triangle is pretty much absent for the film’s middle hour, most of which serves as a tutorial on pickpocketing. Since an entire snatch takes up maybe 30 seconds, the movie features many of them, shown in sequence, and all of which follow the same basic scenario. Ray and Sandy distract the mark momentarily, usually by employing Sandy’s obvious physical charms or by one or both of them “accidentally” bumping into the target. Then Harry, the “cannon,” swoops in and takes the wallet, following which there are a series of handoffs before Casey finally makes off with it. Surprisingly, seeing some 20 or so variations on what is essentially the same theme never becomes boring here. Nor does the lengthy training montage that precedes the thefts, as Ray and Sandy learn their trade. That’s in large part due to Lalo Schifrin’s bouncy score.
“Harry in Your Pocket” was the only feature film directed by Bruce Geller, best known as the creator of the “Mission Impossible” TV series. He uses the same technique here as he did on the show, with lengthy, dialogue-free montages showing the characters in action. That formula worked on the series since the plots of episodes usually involved rather elaborate con games. Here, beyond the thefts, “Harry in Your Pocket” has very little to say. Admittedly, James Coburn and Walter Pidgeon are smooth pros as they deliver their pointers, and Trish Van Devere provides plenty of PG-rated eye candy. However, Michael Sarrazin is rather wooden, with his only significant facial expression a bug-eyed stare that is somewhat creepy. He is just not a compelling leading man here (despite his top billing, Coburn’s role in the film is definitely secondary). Further, Geller (or perhaps his stunt crew) is not skillful enough with the camera to show the actual mechanics of the lifts and handoffs. Instead, most of the grabs are just Coburn walking up next to the mark, followed by another series of close encounters as the wallet is handed off unseen from one member of the crew to another.
To fill up the remainder of the screen time in what would otherwise be about a one-hour feature, director Geller shows viewers plenty of scenery from Seattle and the Pacific Northwest as the characters move from one town to another. Yes, the views are often spectacular, but if I wanted to see the scenery, I would watch a travelogue rather than slow-motion scenes of Michael Sarrazin and Trish Van Devere feeding seagulls.
Although viewers usually get more of a suggestion of how pickpocketing works instead of a view of the actual mechanics, the lift sequences in “Harry in Your Pocket” are breezily entertaining. Further, Coburn and Pidgeon are a lot of fun to watch, as well. And, also, some of the 1973 dialogue in the film is unintentionally amusing when viewed from a 21st-century vantage point. (In one scene, the crew is ecstatically happy about having made over $1400 in a full day of work.) Still, the audience has to put up with lots of scenic but empty filler and lots more of a dull and empty performance by Michael Sarrazin. I’m giving “Harry in Your Pocket” a mild recommendation, but, as a caper film, it’s distinctly petty larceny.