Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New on Blu: "A New Leaf"

"You have managed to keep alive," Henry's butler Harold tells him, "in your lifetime, traditions that were dead before you were born," and he's not kidding. Henry (Walter Matthau) is a snooty aristocrat, spoiled and materialistic; a great opening gag finds him at the bedside of what we presume to be a dying relative, only to discover that it is cherry red Ferrari. Henry speaks in a light upper-crust accent and spends his days driving, riding, and drinking with the very dull, very rich of Manhattan. The trouble is, his money is about to run out--the trust he lives off has been running on fumes for years. Faithful Henry (George Rose) has been helping Henry into his smoking jackets long enough to know that going to work isn't an option, so he advises either suicide or a rich bride. After much gnashing of teeth, he chooses the latter, and that's the juicy premise of Elaine May's A New Leaf.

It marked the soon-to-be embattled writer/director's filmmaking debut, after making a name for herself as half an uproariously funny nightclub team with Mike Nichols, and indeed several of the best scenes in A New Leaf have the dry wit and snappy rhythm of their best routines--I'm thinking particularly of Henry's strained conversation with his accountant (William Redfield), in which he can't get it through his head that the money is gone. He walks out of the office, moans "I'm poor!" and goes on a tour of his old haunts (the tailor, the racquet club, etc.) like a dying man, and he's all but given up until he lays eyes on Henrietta Lowell (May). A kind of ecstasy crosses his face as he hears her particulars: single, sole heir to a fortune, no living parents, no siblings, a giant estate with a large staff. "She's perfect," he purrs, and he goes to work.

Henry's idea isn't just to marry into money, though; he so loathes the notion of having to devote himself and his time to the company of another that he figures he'll bump her off. First chance he gets, preferably. That undercurrent, and the sheer loathsomeness of his entitled rich character, makes this role something of a rarity for lovable hangdog Matthau: it's a genuinely unlikable character. But he somehow makes it work, mostly via his well-played scenes with May. They've got good chemistry (the pair reteamed seven years later, for a segment of the Neil Simon omnibus California Suite), and her Henrietta is a lovely, daft comic creation.

Her style as a filmmaker can be a little choppy--the excessive close-ups occasionally disrupt the comic flow of her two-scenes--but she's got a good eye for off-kilter compositions (there's a wonderful scene of her, on their honeymoon, digging out a rare plant as Matthau, in the foreground, reads "A Beginner's Guide to Toxicology"). A weirder, more offbeat sense of humor slowly takes over in the second half, and she appears to have some trouble sustaining a consistent tone as the story moves into darker territory. Some of that may be a question of assembly; in what would become a pattern on her efforts as a writer/director, May had considerable trouble finishing the film, which was initially a three-hour black comedy that Paramount ultimately took from her and chopped down to a gentler, shorter form. That kind of surgery is bound to leave some loose ends and tonal damage, but she manages to pull it together in the end--in spite of the rather less-than-convincing cutting and execution of its raging-rapids climax.

Though the lack of extras is a bit of a bummer, hats off to Olive Films for continuing--in this burn-on-demand DVD environment--to seek out buried and forgotten treasures and properly preserve them on DVD and Blu-ray. A New Leaf was mostly a forgotten film, with no home video love beyond its original VHS release, and while it's a little bit of a mess, it's fascinating, entertaining, and lovably peculiar.

"A New Leaf" is out today, for the first time, on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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