Cult Movies: Walter Matthau shines in A New Leaf's superlative 70s screwball comedy

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf
Ralph McLean

A New Leaf

I COULD watch Walter Matthau in just about anything. It's that grouchy 'old geezer' persona that suggests a permanent personal raincloud is hovering just above his head that does it for me, I think.

Maybe I'm just getting older and grouchier myself but that sense that he can't be bothered with the world around him or what it has to offer is hugely attractive to me.

That hangdog face lent itself well to serious drama but mastered in comedy: A New Leaf (1971), out now on Blu-ray through Eureka!, is a perfect example of the man in all his grizzled glory.

Directed by and starring Elaine May, it's also a superior screwball comedy that deserves to be remembered as one of the finest comic offerings of the 1970s.

Beautifully scripted, again by the multi-talented May, it bubbles over with ripe dialogue and pointed social commentary.

Mr Matthau is Henry Graham, a man with a problem. Spoiled rotten by a lazy life of luxury and scared to death by the concept of actually having to work for a living, he finds himself at a crossroads in life.

His fortune has finally been frittered away and he is left with one option to save him from a life of bankruptcy: he must find a well-off wife, and quick.

Not that our leading man is keen on it becoming a permanent arrangement, of course. Henry is much too self-absorbed and keen on his grandly opulent lifestyle to consider a life of marriage as a long-term option, you understand.

His plan is simple: he will find a wealthy heiress and bump her off as soon as the paperwork is complete.

That's where the toothy and loaded horticulturalist Henrietta (May) comes into the picture. Laden-down with her catch phrase "Heavens!" and her childlike simplicity, she's the direct opposite of the self-obsessed Henry.

Despite this, Henry pursues her relentlessly, trying his best to fend off the amorous attentions of her other suitor, McPherson, (Jack Weston) in the process.

Matthau slouches his way through proceedings with all his usual class and quality, while May's turn as the unlikely love interest is just as impressive.

Armed with that script, they spark and spit their way through proceedings with an ease you rarely see these days.

Even more impressive is May's directorial performance.

Once famous as half of American stand up duo Nichols and May, the pressure was on by the time she made her big screen debut here. Her one time partner, Mike Nichols, had already jumped over to the world of film directing by this point and enjoyed huge commercial and critical success with the likes of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, but May marks her own arrival in the world of film with genuine panache.

Adapting a Jack Ritchie short story The Green Heart, she makes a quality adult comedy out of slim pickings plot wise.

While it's not perfect, the film is packed with enough comic quality to suggest a real maverick talent had arrived.

Unburdened by the excesses that would render her own Ishtar a huge flop some years later and boasting a top notch turn from Walter Matthau on the finest of form, A New Leaf comes over as a triumph of 70's class, wit and style.

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