Michael Roemer's `Plot' Sees The Light Of Day Again

``I can't claim expertise: I once made a comedy, and nobody laughed.''

That's what Michael Roemer, filmmaker and adjunct professor at Yale University, has been telling his American film comedy classes over the past 20 years. It's a punch line that always got some chuckles from his students, but it may not work for him anymore.

With the re-release of ``The Plot Against Harry'' some 20 years after it was made (it's at the Metro Cinemas), a revised verdict is in.

The film - which follows the convoluted path of a Jewish New York racketeer who's losing his touch - may be as dry as the Sahara, but it's definitely funny.

On the telephone from New York, Roemer sounded ebullient about the news. In fact, he sounded as if he brings an ebullience and a keen sense of the absurd to his approach to everything. A Jewish refugee from Berlin, he came to this country in 1945 after spending the war in England. He speaks fluent English with a marked German accent.

``People probably perceive me as a 62-year-old professor, and say, `Oh, the poor guy, he should have made more films.' ''

In fact, Roemer has made more films since ``Harry'' went into a sort of celluloid suspended animation. Among them are ``Dying,'' a 1976 documentary, and two feature films: ``Pilgrim, Farewell'' (1980) with Christopher Lloyd and ``Haunted'' (1984) with Brooke Adams. All have played on PBS.

Teaching at Yale, where he has been since 1966, has fostered his filmmaking, giving him ``an income I could count on from one year to the next, while leaving me free to make just the films I wanted to make.''

Two days a week he offers classes on American comedy and documentary, as well as a hands-on course at the Yale School of Art's graduate program. ``I'm an anomaly as a professor. I have just a bachelor's degree. My value to students is I'm still active in the thing I teach.''

The rest of his time goes to scriptwriting. Films are shot in the summer and during occasional semester-long leaves of absence.

He doesn't deny that ``Harry'' 's initial failure had enormous impact on his subsequent career, keeping him away from comedy and large-scale productions (the ``Harry'' cast numbers in the hundreds). For years he thought of the film as a mistake. While he didn't have ``one moment of regret about anything,'' he did feel sorry for the cast and investor Stimson Bullitt (of King Broadcasting's now-defunct King Screen division).

King Screen's involvement lends the film a local connection. Bullitt saw Roemer's 1965 film ``Nothing But a Man'' (about the problems of blacks in Alabama) in Seattle. Visiting Roemer's hole-in-the-wall New York office in 1966, he offered financial backing, with a choice of project and final cut, to a stunned Roemer and his production partner, Robert Young (who has since enjoyed success as director of ``Dominick and Eugene'').

``It doesn't happen very often that people say, `What would you like to do?' '' Roemer reminisces. ``Usually they tell you, `This is what we want you to do.' ''

Three years later, preview screenings for King Broadcasting, Los Angeles distributors and professional associates all met with the same response: not laughter, but silence. After a brief run at Seattle's Blue Mouse Theater in 1971 (which Roemer learned about only recently) King Broadcasting decided to write it off. Distributors who saw the film in 1974 didn't bite either.

Only last year, when Roemer had the film transferred onto video so his children could see it, did ``Harry'' show signs of life: The man doing the video transfer was laughing. Successful showings at the Toronto and New York film festivals led to New Yorker Films picking it up. It's now enjoying a successful art-house release.

``It's satisfying to me that (Bullitt's) faith in us has been vindicated, even if it's 20 years later.''

Although Roemer didn't change one frame of the film, he did rebalance the sound track, bringing the background bedlam of elevator music, ringing telephones and traffic noise to the foreground. ``I didn't want the figures to be isolated from their context.''

Roemer has three scripts that need financial backing, including one with ``lots of people'' in it and a ``more dynamic central figure'' than Harry. ``I like the passivity of Harry, myself,'' Roemer says, ``but it's not what most people are used to.''

He plans to stick with filming his own scripts. Worried that this may sound arrogant, he adds that this is ``not a decision of integrity, but a sense of who you are . . . I don't think I'd be good at directing someone else's material.''

Of his own projects he says, ``If someone is interested, it may happen. The truth is that if nothing happens, I'm fine. I have no reason to complain. I'm 62 and I'm not in a hurry.''

In the meantime, there's the belated success of ``Harry'' to enjoy. ``It doesn't work for everybody, but it works for enough to fill a small theater. It has an audience now.''