A New Leaf (1971)

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You have managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born. A spoiled and self-absorbed playboy who has squandered his inheritance, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is ageing and desperate to find a way to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He approaches his disbelieving Uncle Harry (James Coco) who agrees to loan him some money but only on condition he marries within 6 weeks or he will take everything Henry has left in his name, ten times the loan amount. Henry sees an opportunity when he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward and bookish botanist and heiress whose greatest hope is to discover a new fern. Though Henry proposes marriage within three days of meeting, he has no intention of remaining with her and plans a sinister scheme. As he attempts to murder Henrietta, it may not be as easy as he had thought and he finds himself protecting her from her thieving household staff and caring about her appearance … I eat I sleep I swim I dry off.  I’m primitive! Writer/director Elaine May’s hilarious black comedy may have been re-cut by the studio (headed up by the legendary Robert Evans) against her wishes (losing two murders in the process) but Matthau preferred this version and it’s laugh out loud brilliant and humane, quite a combination. Matthau’s hangdog look perfectly encapsulates his desperate situation as the destitute playboy who against his killer instincts finds his inner decency; while May is a delight as the klutzy eccentric who knows more than she lets on. Coco is hideously funny as the rich uncle with the motorized pepper mill who has a metaphorical noose over Henry; while James Weston scores as Henrietta’s lawyer desperate not to lose his valuable client. Some of the best scenes are between Henry and his ‘gentlemen’s gentleman’ Harold (Jack Rose) who commences by suggesting suicide as an alternative to the awful embarrassment of public poverty when the cheques start to bounce; and then points out the ironic development that Henrietta’s helplessness has triggered Henry’s surprising financial acumen. Startlingly funny and rather cruel about men and women and a certain social niche, this has lost none of its edge or its warmth because it truly understands the vast compromises required by marriage and there are moments of inspired physical comedy.  Adapted by May from Jack Ritchie’s short story The Green Heart. I’m going to find a suitable woman and mur …. marry her!