Every now and then I stumble across a movie that everyone seems to have heard of but me. Which is at the same time delightful and annoying. As it turns out, Harry in Your Pocket is one of those well-known obscure movies that I managed to catch on TCM. There’s no DVD for it, the VHS is out of print but you can watch it on Amazon’s Video on Demand service, and I highly recommend you do so, because this one’s a winner.
Though it starts off with a loser: Ray is an amiable schlemiel we first meet in a bus station trying unsuccessfully to lift wallets from a variety of passengers (including one man who mistakes Ray’s clumsy thievery as a come on and gives him a come-hither smile in return). All of this comes as great entertainment to Sandy who has been passing her time watching. When Ray steals her watch, she rolls her eyes in disbelief and chases him outside, only to have her purse and suitcase stolen by a much more successful thief. Feeling equally guilty and turned-on, Ray offers to pay her back for her loss. He turns to a fence who tells him about a “wire mob” looking to recruit pick-pockets. That’s when Ray and Sandy meet Casey and Harry, a pair of seasoned crooks who take the couple under their wing. From there on, the partners give Ray, Sandy and the audience a crash course in the art of pick-pocketing. A wire mob consists of a “steerer” (Casey, who chooses the “marks” and signals to the others where the “poke” (wallet) is kept), a “stall” who distracts the mark long enough for the “cannon” to make the “lift”, and then “pass” so that the steerer can “skim” of the cash and dispose of the evidence, all without attracting the attention of “Mr. Law”, or violating the first of “Harry’s Laws”: “Harry Never Holds.”
The middle of the movie is filled with delightful little ballets of theft as the quartet lift dozens of pokes from marks who never even suspect they’ve been robbed—until much later and with usually very funny results. Harry is tough and demanding, Casey is elegant and an expert in steering; Ray is eager to be his own cannon, however, particularly because Sandy, used to the best effect as an eye-candy stall in short skirts and shorts, is drawn to Harry. Ray wants Harry’s respect but he wants to keep Sandy. As Casey explains, “We all have our little weaknesses.”
Set to an upbeat jazz score that puts one in mind of The Thomas Crown Affair, Harry in Your Pocket breezes along with such effortless charm, you almost don’t want it to end, even though a savvy viewer knows exactly what’s going to happen. While the plot may be thin, the chemistry between the quartet keeps you watching all the way through. While James Coburn, as Harry, is James Coburn and never less, giving you exactly what you expect, his co-stars are equally charismatic. Michael Sarrazin is likable as the easy-going Ray, but his character is light-weight compared to the marvelous Walter Pidgeon as Casey. Pidgeon effortlessly steals the movie, only you see the magic happen (unlike his marks). And Mrs. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere not only holds her own amidst the cast but gives Sandy such a smart, sexy spark that it’s easy to see why the men are drawn to her. When we reach the midway point and Ray tells Harry that he’s leaving and taking Sandy with her, Harry replies, “Maybe you should ask the lady.” Sandy retorts, “Somebody better ask her something!” She’s an equal partner in this film—not a damsel, not a love-interest and only along for this ride because she’s amused and fascinated. She made the decision to join the mob; nobody made it for her.
So entertaining are these four that when the film reaches it’s second-act twist, where the conflict ramps up and it looks like the band is breaking up, you may catch yourself hoping the movie just ends there, right before the inevitable bad stuff happens, because you want these crooks to win. You want the family to stay together.