Rabbi Avram Belinski (Wilder), newly graduated at the bottom of his class from the yeshiva, arrives in Philadelphia from Poland en route to San Francisco where he will be a congregation's new rabbi. He has with him a Torah scroll for the San Francisco synagogue. Belinski, an innocent, trusting, and inexperienced traveler, falls in with three con men, the brothers Matt and Darryl Diggs and their partner Mr. Jones, who trick him into helping pay for a wagon and supplies to go west, then brutally rob him and leave him and most of his belongings scattered along a deserted road in Pennsylvania.
Still determined to make it to San Francisco, Belinski spends time with some Pennsylvania Dutch Amish people (whom at first he takes for Jews). Because he was injured when he was dumped out of the speeding wagon, the Amish nurse Belinski back to health and give him money for the train west to the end of the line. When he reaches the end of the line in Ohio, the rabbi manages to find work on the railroad. On his way west again after saving up enough money to buy a horse and some supplies, he is befriended and looked after by a stranger named Tommy Lillard (Ford), a bank robber with a soft heart who is moved by Belinski's helplessness and frank personality, despite the trouble it occasionally gives him.
For instance, when Lillard robs a bank on a Thursday, he finds that Belinski (an Orthodox Jew) will not ride on the Shabbat — even with a hanging posse on his tail. However, they still manage to get away, mainly because with the horses rested from having been walked for a full day, they are fresh and able to ride all night, outdistancing their pursuers.
On another occasion, due to Belinski's insistence on riding into foul weather, he and Lillard have to use an old Indian trick and snuggle up next to their horses, which they have gotten to lie on the ground, to wait out a snowstorm. While traveling together, the two also experience American Indian customs and hospitality, disrupt a Trappist monastery's vow of silence with an innocent gesture of gratitude, and learn a little about each other's culture.
While stopping in a small town not too far from San Francisco, Belinski encounters the Diggs brothers and Jones again. He gets into a fight with the three of them and, after taking a beating, is rescued by Lillard, who takes back what they had stolen from Belinski and more besides.
Seeking revenge, the three bandits follow the pair and ambush them on a California beach where they have stopped to bathe and a firefight ensues. Tommy shoots Jones dead and creases Matt Diggs, who flees the scene. Belinski experiences a crisis of faith when he is forced to kill Darryl Diggs in self-defense after Darryl wounded Tommy. Lillard restores his faith by an eloquent argument with simple language, reminding him that he still is what he is inside, despite what he had to do on the beach.
When Matt Diggs, sole survivor of the ambushing trio, prepares to avenge his brother by killing Belinski and Lillard springs to his friend's defense, Belinski, regaining his composure, shows his wisdom and courage in front of the entire community by disarming and exiling Diggs from San Francisco. The film ends with Belinski marrying Rosalie Bender, younger daughter of the head of San Francisco's Jewish community, with Lillard attending the ceremony as his best man.Gene Wilder as Avram Belinski
Harrison Ford as Tommy Lillard
Ramon Bieri as Mr. Jones
Val Bisoglio as Chief Gray Cloud
George Ralph DiCenzo as Darryl Diggs
Leo Fuchs as Chief Rabbi
Penny Peyser as Rosalie Bender
William Smith as Matt Diggs
Jack Somack as Samuel Bender
Beege Barkette as Sarah Mindl Bender
Shay Duffin as O'Leary
Walter Janowitz as Old Amish man
Frank De Vol as Red Dog piano player
Joe Kapp as Monterano
Clyde Kusatsu as Mr. Ping
Cliff Pellow as Mr. Daniels
Eda Reiss Merin as Mrs. Bender
Vincent Schiavelli as Brother Bruno
Ian Wolfe as Father Joseph
The film holds a 53% rating on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 15 reviews, with a 67% audience score.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times described The Frisco Kid as "harmless chaos": "People keep coming and going and doing ferociously cute things, but never anything that could appeal to anyone except a close relative or someone with a built-in weakness for anything ethnic whatsoever." He criticized the lack of plot development, saying that, while based on a clever idea, The Frisco Kid ultimately fails to deliver on its promise.
Roger Ebert gave the movie a mixed review, admitting that after seeing Cat Ballou he was "forever after spoiled on the subject of comic Westerns." "The movie's based on a good idea, yes... But what approach do you take to this material? What's your comic tone? The Frisco Kid tries for almost every possible tone."
Jordan Hiller called it one of "25 Essential Jewish Movies", praising its "uncommon innocence and unselfconscious humility." He called it an "unpredictably paced part screwball comedy farce, part dramatic buddy picture, part spaghetti western" and wrote, "The Frisco Kid has the feel of an artist’s charmingly naive youthful indiscretion... The Frisco Kid is, all pratfalls and tuchus jokes aside, the quintessential Torah movie." Reviewer Ken Hanke wrote, "Robert Aldrich's penultimate film is an easygoing work of some considerable charm that relies far too much on ethnic humor — mostly Jewish, but not entirely — to sit quite as comfortably as it might like... [Aldrich's] professionalism serves the film well. It's very hard to fault on a technical level, and he brings a strong visual sense to bear on a number of sequences that raise them several notches above the TV flavor of the material. The dance sequence, when Avram and his unlikely companion, Tommy (Harrison Ford), are prisoners of a tribe of Indians, is a good case in point, as is the final shoot-out in the streets of San Francisco... Never a great movie, it's nonetheless a pleasant one — an old-fashioned entertainment that more than gets by on the unforced (albeit unlikely) chemistry of Wilder and Ford."
Puccio of Movie Metropolis called the film "humorous and touching" and "uplifting as well": "The Frisco Kid is not a great film; it's not even a very good film by the best filmmaking standards; but it's such a sweet and gentle film, it's hard not to like... The film moseys along at a leisurely pace, and the director has a little difficulty finding the right comedic tone between dry, subtle farce and outright slapstick; yet it manages to find a soft spot in the heart for every scene, so maybe 'heartwarming' is what Aldrich had in mind, in which case he couldn't have done better."
Wilder's performance received wide praise. Ebert wrote, "What's poignant about the film is that Wilder's performance is such a nice one. He's likable, plucky, versatile. He is, in fact, as good an actor here as he's ever been before, and at his own brand of complex vulnerability Gene Wilder has never been surpassed." Hanke said, "But the main interest in the film is probably Gene Wilder's performance, which is interesting simply because it's one of the few times that Wilder played a character that wasn't essentially Gene Wilder. And, lo and behold, he does a perfectly credible job of being someone else — or at least someone else who isn't Willy Wonka." Film scholar Stuart Galbraith IV declares that Wilder gives "one of his very best performances" and calls his character "incredibly endearing": "The Frisco Kid is a real surprise, offering as it does one of Gene Wilder's best characterizations in a film that's alternately funny and sweetly touching, this despite Robert Aldrich's generally indelicate direction." Puccio wrote, "Nobody does nice like Gene Wilder... Nor have many actors been so willing to celebrate their culture and religious convictions as Wilder does here, perhaps also a trait he picked up from [Mel] Brooks."