The Frisco Kid is a genial comedy desperately in search of a narrative thread. This story of a hapless Polish rabbi (Gene Wilder) finding his way across the American Old West with the help of a genial bank robber (Harrison Ford) has a good heart and some funny moments, but no sense of direction. It hits the high points of western clichés, like train robbers, Chinese railroad workers, a hanging posses, horse being spooked by a rattlesnake and a climatic showdown on a dusty street. The real problem is that the central relationship, between Wilder’s Rabbi Avram Belinski and Ford’s Tommy Lillard, has no story arc. They meet, they bicker, they reach San Francisco.
Belinski, who graduated 87th from a class of 88 at rabbinical school, is sent from Poland to head a new congregation in San Francisco, which he’s told is somewhere “near New York.” Arriving in Philadelphia, “the city where brothers love each other,” he’s tagged as an easy mark by robbers who prey on new immigrants, then rescued by Amish farmers, given money for a train, which is robbed by Tommy Lillard.
Eventually, Tommy takes the naive Avram under his wing, helping him find his way toward San Francisco, stopping along the way to rob a bank (that is his job, after all), turning the unwitting rabbi into a fugitive on the run from a posse. This leads to some tension between the two men when Avram refuses to ride a horse on the Sabbath, despite being pursued. He does, however, allow himself some flexibility on the subject of sundown.
As I said, the key relationship between Avram and Tommy has no real story arc to move it along. Their friendship does not evolve over the course of the story and Tommy’s motivation for accompanying this sweet, trusting man to his destination is fuzzy at best.
Still, both Wilder and Ford give likeable performances, with Tommy Lillard being a variation of the roguish outlaw that Ford had played a couple years earlier in some space movie. Not the best movie either man had done, but it’s harmless and features some pretty scenery.