The actor and comedian Elaine May was only allowed to write and direct three films between 1971-1987 (she directed one other with no writing credit), but the narrative that built up around her was one of impecunious budgetary blow-outs, and that story was allowed to largely define her work for a long time after the commercial failure of Ishtar (1987). However, I think there’s generally a sense nowadays that this narrative is quite unfair to her directorial legacy, certainly on the basis of the two films of hers I’ve seen (1976’s Mikey and Nicky, and now this one). A New Leaf is a black comedy that revels in deadpan laughs, of which there are plenty if you’re attuned to its rhythms. Walter Matthau plays Henry, a bored playboy who’s run through his inheritance and is now desperate for a plan to keep the lifestyle to which he’s been born, and so latches onto Henrietta (Elaine May), rich but timid and socially awkward, someone he feels he can easily win over and then kill off. And so he sets about his task with a kind of macabre relish (though that seems too melodramatic a word given Matthau’s laconic and unsmiling performance) that reminds me of the blacker moments in the same year’s Harold and Maude, but where that film has already accrued a sizeable cult following, it’s May’s film that I think is the real star of its era and feels like some kind of summation of the American spirit. Whatever its troubled production history, this remains a towering achievement of a turbulent era.
Director/Writer Elaine May (based on the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie); Cinematographer Gayne Rescher; Starring Walter Matthau, Elaine May; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 14 January 2016.