Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) may know how to spend money but he does not know how to make it – or keep it. He lives in an expensive New York City apartment furnished impeccably and festooned with rare and priceless artworks, his favourite activity is to drive around in his red Ferrari, he enjoys all the finest in food and drink, and what he has no interest in whatsoever is women. But then one day comes bad news: his accountant (William Redfield) calls him in to his office and breaks it to Henry that there is no money left, he has spent it all. He is not eligible for a loan, so there is nobody he can turn to, and the accountant isn’t going to bail him out (again), so what does he do now?
It’s safe to say A New Leaf as it was released in 1971 was not exactly what its writer, director and star Elaine May had in mind. As one of the rising comedy stars of the nineteen-sixties, she had made her name in a double act with Mike Nichols who was doing very well in directing, so it must have seemed obvious for her to make that leap to helming movies herself even though as she was happy to admit she wasn’t very sure what she was doing. A pattern emerged here: she would deliver a director’s cut which lasted hours (three in this case) but tended to be reluctant to let her work go, tinkering with it until it was taken away from her by the studio, most notoriously with the final effort she directed, Ishtar.
A New Leaf wasn’t as career-destroying as that, though, indeed it was very well received, but the fact that the studio had altered the entire theme of her movie by removing a subplot where Henry became a murderer obviously rankled, and she even sought legal advice to see if she could restore it to its original state, failing hence the only form it has been available in for decades is the studio cut. Nevertheless, it gathered enough of a reputation in that edit to become a cult movie, mainly from people who had no idea that it was not meant to be a black comedy which moved towards a sweet tale of romantic redemption, but more a black comedy that moved towards a dark conclusion of romantic turmoil.
So would it have been better as the three hour long epic from an untutored but talented newcomer, or were the studio correct? It certainly doesn’t come across as particularly egregious when you watch what was released, indeed a great many highly amusing episodes survived, though when you knew you were warming to what was in effect a terrible person in the shape of the selfish Henry you may wonder if that was the intention. There was no doubt you were supposed to like the woman he marries for her money, Henrietta, a botanist whose gauche ways have ensured a life as an unclaimed treasure, and played by the director in a keen comic performance that kept up with Matthau with some skill, as he was not a star who was always easy to work with, never mind keep up with his level of accomplishment.
In spite of that, he was supportive to May probably because he recognised he was getting a pretty decent chance with this role, cast against type in what plays like it should be essayed by a Robert Redford, for instance. Henry is so obnoxious initially that you may ponder spending the next hour and forty minutes with him will be a true test of the patience, but quickly his utter scorn for anyone but himself becomes weirdly compelling, and helping that was the way Matthau was making you laugh at this pitch black heart of his. In contrast, May’s acting was notably skilled in bringing out our sympathies, especially when Henry, having won her pathetically grateful hand in marriage, plans to get his own hands on her fortune without Henrietta being in the picture. In the director’s cut, he bumped off others who got in his way, but here he becomes a better man thanks to his bride’s innocence and purity (conveyed in her total unworldliness) and that is oddly heartwarming – but not what May wanted, leaving mixed feelings when it’s a perfectly entertaining film in its milder studio cut.
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release of the studio cut looks and sounds fine (though the volume levels are a little loud in the effects and music), with a video essay and an extensive booklet as extras.]