Forty-five years on, Elaine May’s 1971 debut as writer, director and leading lady, the deliciously dark screwball comedy A New Leaf, remains a film to treasure. An odd and little seen movie, to be sure, and one that notoriously had 78 minutes of its original three-hour running time cut out by the studio, but a cult gem all the same.
A New Leaf‘s off-kilter sensibility is apparent right from the start in May’s choice of leading man. Walter Matthau. In a stroke of counterintuitive casting genius, the slob of The Odd Couple here plays an upper-class snob.
Henry Graham is a destitute middle-aged playboy, a pampered idler who has exhausted his inherited fortune and is on the verge of suicide when he hits on a last-gasp scheme to secure his future: marry and murder a wealthy heiress. May plays his intended target, the impossibly naive, clumsy and filthy rich botanist Henrietta Lowell, whose great dream is to discover a new species of fern.
Henry’s attempted seduction of Henrietta is a masterpiece of slow-burn hilarity – just wait till you hear the way Matthau rolls his tongue around the horrors of “Mogen David’s extra heavy Malaga wine… with lime juice”, Henrietta’s beverage of choice.
The film is stuffed full of priceless scenes and eminently quotable lines, from Henry’s lugubrious refrain of “carbon on the valves” when his beloved Ferrari breaks down for the umpteenth time to his stoic claim – the wooing of Henrietta having hit yet another disaster – that “kneeling in glass is my favourite pastime. It stops me from slouching.”
Matthau is brilliant throughout, but May’s Henrietta is a more than worthy foil, pulling off the feat of being simultaneously exasperating and endearing. The supporting performances are a joy, too, with droll comic turns from, among others, George Rose as Henry’s unflappable valet and Jack Weston as Henrietta’s unscrupulous lawyer.
A New Leaf‘s gallery of eccentric characters and blackly comic plot give it an affinity to Robert Hamer’s classic 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is a kinship any comic movie would be proud to claim. But as the plot unfolds, May’s A New Leaf unexpectedly turns out to be a sweet and tender love story as well.
Certificate U. Runtime 102 mins. Director Elaine May
A New Leaf is released for the first time in the UK by Eureka Entertainment in a Dual Format edition on Blu-ray & DVD.
- New high-definition digital transfer with exclusive image restoration
- Uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- The Bluebeard of Happiness, a new video essay by critic David Cairns
- 32-PAGE BOOKLET featuring new and vintage writing on the film, and archival images