Widower Harry Coombes (Art Carney) lives alone except for his cat in a New York City apartment, but his peaceful existence is about to be disrupted when he learns the block where his home is will soon be demolished to make way for a new car park. Harry isn't going without a fight, and he likes living in this neighbourhood with his dwindling circle of friends, but perhaps he would be better off out of there considering he has been mugged four times already this year. So the time has come to move out, or rather move in - with one of his sons, which he's not happy about, but he has to settle down somewhere...
It wasn't Jack Nicholson who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1975, nor was it Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino so who was the titan of big screen acting who did walk away with the prize? That's right, it was Art Carney from T.V.'s The Honeymooners for his understated and unassuming performance in Harry and Tonto, a major upset at the time and cause of much disbelief ever since. It could be that the Academy were feeling sentimental about their favourite T.V. shows, but if you haven't seen the film, or at least not for a while, it's easy to forget the winning charm that the star carried here.
Even though it takes in an epic journey, this is a low key work for the most part, with its emotions only occasionally bubbling up to the surface, preferring a lightly humorous angle on its septuagenarian hero. Although for the first forty minutes or so before Harry finally his the road, it's easy to feel despondent at his situation, thrown out of his apartment and stuck with the arguing and dysfunctional family of his son (Philip Bruns). As if that weren't bad enough, his old pals are dying off around him, and in these early stages it looks as if we're in for a morose time - that cat isn't getting any younger, either.
Then Harry decides to take Tonto the moggy to see his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn), but when it's made clear in no uncertain terms that he cannot be allowed to have his cat accompany him on the plane, he opts to take the bus. It's at this point that the film begins to wake up from under its grey cloud, and when Tonto wishes to relieve himself Harry has to persuade the driver to stop and then Tonto runs away so... Basically the old man takes his cat and his luggage to a used car salesman and buys a little blue vehicle to drive all the way to Chicago in. And as he goes, he encounters a cross section of America in easy to handle pieces, a teenage hitchhiker (Melanie Mayron) here, a Native Indian medicine man (the priceless Chief Dan George) in prison there.
But although director and writer (with Josh Greenfeld) Paul Mazursky can rightly be accused of tending towards the precious in these meetings, even corny in places (as when Harry goes to visit a now-senile past girlfriend - played by Geraldine Fitzgerald - in a retirement home), he never resorts to going over the top in big tearjerking or laughter-inducing sequences. Carney was not the first choice (James Cagney turned the role down), and you could admit he was too young to play Harry (he was picked in case the film flopped so it could be sold to television instead: T.V. star, see?), but he does a marvellous job, illustrating dramatic skills that might have gone unrecorded otherwise. As road movies go, it grows on you the more characters we meet, whether they be a cheerful hooker (Barbara Rhoades) or Harry's less than cheerful other son (Larry Hagman, great in the ten minutes he appears), and casts a beguiling spell that you may not notice until the story is over. Music by Bill Conti.