Movie Review: The Frisco Kid

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A rabbi travels across America to find his new synagogue in San Francisco.

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Robert Aldrich, 1979

Thanks to a wobbly start at rabbi school, newly minted rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) is shipped off to the new world from Poland in order to administer to a synagogue in San Francisco. Landing in Philadelphia, the naive Belinski is quickly parted from his belongings by con man Matt Diggs (William Smith) and his gang. Belinski is left to traverse the country with only his wits and his precious Torah. After Belinski’s train is robbed, he comes across cowboy Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford). Despite Lillard’s constant grousing, they strike up a friendship, but Belinski soon learns that Lillard is not as innocent as he seems. The two of them must overcome their differences as they are chased by hanging parties and threatened by the Diggs gang, making their way to San Francisco together.

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This movie isn’t particularly great. The tone is all over the place, for one thing. It’s definitely aiming for comedic, but there are moments that are silly and over the top when they shouldn’t be, jokes that don’t stick, and a few times that it seems like the film is making too light of a serious situation – even though there’s never any genuine sense of threat. Add that to what feels like a tacked-on and not entirely logical message at the conclusion, and a very weak ending, and it seemed like they just didn’t know what they wanted to do with this script. The episodic nature of the film doesn’t help, as we hop from railroad workers to robbing trains to whitewashed Natives and silent priests. It’s also a very 1970s version of what the Wild West was like. Gritty realism this is not. We’re spoiled these days; it’s easy to forget how silly the West looked on screen in a lot of earlier movies. The film doesn’t seem to have much of a budget, either, and the cinematography really suffers for it. It’s so damn cute that I didn’t really care, though.

A lot of that rests on Harrison Ford’s surprisingly earnest shoulders. It’s easy to forget how un-self-conscious Ford is (was?) as an actor until you see something like Frisco Kid, in which he is utterly unafraid to look silly. The film is also grounded by a warm, genuine turn from the great Gene Wilder in the lead. He seems utterly determined to show people the value of Judaism – it’s honestly one of the nicest portrayals of the religion I’ve seen in a movie. The two of them have a sweet, easy chemistry that maintains the movie through some rough patches. Their friendship, from the arguments to the playful banter, feels completely organic. While Harrison Ford can take a fall better than anyone else in cinema, this film is at its best when it utilises Gene Wilder’s sly, winking humour. His gentle rabbi’s sarcasm comes to the fore when he’s frustrated, and in those moments the film becomes truly funny. As a way to pass an evening, you could do a lot worse than this mostly forgotten flick.

The Frisco Kid on IMDb

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