The year is 1902. The old west is coming to an end. Almost all of the famous outlaws are either dead or imprisoned. Only a few, like Harry Tracy (Bruce Dern), continue to make a living by robbing banks and trains. Though he is often captured and even sentenced to death a few times, Harry is always able to escape. His latest escape, from a prison in Washington, has led to the largest manhunt in American history. Harry is being pursued by a trigger-happy army, led by U.S. Marshal Morrie Nathan (played by singer Gordon Lightfoot). Harry has been in this situation before but this time, things are different. Harry is traveling with Catherine Tuttle (Helen Shaver), the daughter of a local judge. Harry and Catherine are in love but that does not matter to the men with the guns.
Harry Tracy is a sadly overlooked and elegiac western from Canada. It is based on a true story. Outlaw Harry Tracy really did escape from several prisons and he eventually was the target of the largest manhunt in U.S. history. (His relationship with Catherine was apparently created for the film.) In real life, Harry was reportedly considered to be more ruthless than Jesse James and he killed not only members of law enforcement but also members of his own gang. The movie’s Harry is a much more gentle character. In the film, Harry only kills in self-defense and he robs banks not because he’s greedy but because it’s the only life that he has ever known. Harry is a relic of a time that it coming to a close. In one scene, he is shocked to come across a man driving a car. For an outlaw who usually makes his escape on horseback, the new century does not hold much promise.
In the tradition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Harry Tracy mixes comedy with tragedy. The film’s defining image is Harry fleeing from his latest robbery and dropping most of the money in the process. Harry often seems to be bewildered by all the fuss that people are making over him. Bruce Dern and Helen Shaver are great as Harry and Catherine. Even the casting of Gordon Lightfoot works. (Lightfoot also wrote the movie’s theme song.)
Harry Tracy is an overlooked classic about the end of the old west and the beginning of the modern era.