Monday, 14 December 2015

a new leaf

a new leaf is a kind of alternative romantic comedy that on the surface seems completely innocent but underneath feels more than a little subversive.

walter matthau plays henry graham, a trust fund playboy who only exists to spend money, until he discovers he’s broke. when he confesses as much to his butler, harold (george rose), he is advised to seek a wife, preferably a rich one, so that harold may continue to be employed and henry can go along living the life he has become accustomed to. henry’s search leads him to henrietta lowell (played by the writer and director of the film, elaine may), a geeky, socially awkward botanist with a huge inheritance. henry decides that she is the one, he just has to figure out a way to marry her and then kill her so he can take her money.

a new leaf is based on the short story a green heart by jack ritchie, which was originally published in alfred hitchcock’s mystery magazine. i haven’t read the story and don’t know whether it’s similar in tone to the film, but there is something almost poe-esque about henry’s determination to kill henrietta. there is a darkness to this film that you kind of miss while watching it, because it all seems so light and absurd. and yet this is a film about a man who so can’t bear to live without money that he’s prepared to kill the most innocent, unassuming, inoffensive human being he can find. on the surface, however, this is a fun romantic comedy and there is something spectacular about the way the tone and the subject matter are so perfectly balanced.

the film was the writing and directing debut of elaine may, who had previously been part of a stand-up comedy duo with mike nichols. may would later direct three more features and worked on the scripts for films like heaven can wait, reds and primary colors. it’s amazing to think that here, with her first feature as a writer, she had the confidence not only to direct for the first time as well but also to star in the film. that the result is so unconventional and subversive is therefore doubly impressive.

what’s interesting is that for a film made by a woman in the 1970s, this is really a film about men. women don’t feature in henry graham’s life at all, and he makes it very clear that this is through choice. despite the lack of female characters in the film, the men do not come off particularly well. while may’s character is awkward and gullible, she is also depicted as incredibly intelligent when it comes to her profession, plus there’s a suggestion towards the end that perhaps she’s aware of more than she lets on. by comparison, matthau’s character is vain, shallow and heartless, and the other men in the film don’t come off much better. the sequence that opens this film perfectly sums this up, with henry talking about the problems with his vintage sports car with a friend who has similar problems with his vintage airplane. these are not the men who rule the world, but rather they are the sons of the men who ruled the world and they have nothing of value to add to society as a result. at the same time, henrietta comes off as something of an anomaly and the other women in the film are as obsessed with wealth as henry. i wonder if perhaps gender was not a huge part of the discussion when may was working on a new leaf; maybe it is simply a film about wealth, but it’s hard for me to disassociate the gender politics of the 1970s from a work by a female director making films in that period.

the only issue with the above set up is that it does occasionally make henry really difficult to sympathise with. obviously we’re not supposed to sympathise with him, especially when he coldly researches methods of killing henrietta, but i think we are supposed to care enough to want him to change. that does work eventually, and where it does is down to matthau’s performance. matthau doesn’t play henry as particularly likable or charming but manages to make him appear as both anyway. aside from the ending, the way henry develops as a character is incredibly subtle, which is a bold move because we're forced to spend time with him in every scene and it's not always clear that he is going to develop.

while the blu-ray is a little short on extras there is a nice visual essay on the film that contains a lot of background information on may how the project came together. for all its silliness and comedic set pieces, a new leaf is a film that challenges the audience. from the casting of matthau in a lead role to asking the audience to sympathise with the motivations of a psychopath, in some ways it feels as challenging now as it must have been on its original release. it's hard to believe anyone would get away with having a character like henry graham leading a romantic comedy today, so a new leaf really stands out as something of an anomaly.

a new leaf is available now on dual format blu-ray/dvd from eureka entertainment

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