DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP
Elaine May directed a handful of movies, and all of them went out of budgetary control. Her first, most successful film, taken out of her editing hands, was shortened by half its length. Some called it studio butchery.
Yet, forty years later, A New Leaf on a no-frills DVD is brilliant, frothy, irreverent, and a delightful adaptation of Jack Ritchie’s macabre short story called “The Green Heart.” Ritchie usually wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s magazine and had a few stories developed into series episodes.
So, Miss May intended a dark comedy indeed. It did not end up that way (thank heavens). Walter Matthau played a foppish elitist who loses his wealth and must resort to the unthinkable: marriage to a rich woman whom he would murder to gain her fortune and live his profligate lifestyle unimpeded.
May wrote, directed, and took the lead role as the helpless nebbish, Henrietta Lowell, rich and klutzy. An academic nerd with a good heart, she is gauche and louche. She played perfectly off Matthau, the only actor who could carry off Henry Graham with equal parts pathos and slime.
The first half of the movie simply carries the viewer along for a hilarious satire on a rich playboy facing penury. All this is assisted with a supporting cast of familiar faces and highly talented character actors, including George Rose, Doris Roberts, Jack Weston, Conrad Bain, and James Coco.
May’s victim looks like a goner every step of the way, though the tables could be turned on those river rapids.
The film deserves rediscovery and deeper appreciation, even if it disappointed Elaine May. It will not disappoint the audience, and that will make this charmer a catharsis even Hitchcock must have enjoyed.