Starring: Walter Matthau, Elaine May
Director: Elaine May
The one supposed to be turning over a new leaf is Walter Matthau’s Henry Graham, an ageing roue who has blown his trust fund on horses, planes and fast cars. However, instead of getting a job and earning a crust, he decides to marry for money, and then murder his bride. Luckily for him, he finds the perfect victim in the shape of Elaine May’s Henrietta, a clumsy, bespectacled botanist with non-existent social skills.
Initially, Matthau doesn’t seem that a good a fit for a part – his face looks far too lived-in and worldly wise – but he comes into his own later on, first when he’s in cynical fortune hunter mode, and later when Henrietta’s slovenliness and anarchic financial accounts bring out an unexpected self-discipline and love of order in him. It’s this discovery of new depths within himself which is the heart of the film, and it’s entertaining to watch the transformation, although it has to be said that Matthau doesn’t get much help from May, who’s turn as Henrietta is too much of a broad caricature to work in a rom-com setting.
May was married to Mike Nichols, and tonally the film strikes a similar attractive note of alienation and ennui to The Graduate. The script, though, is more of a mixed bag, throwing together slapstick and arch verbal humour in a way that sometimes misfires. On the other hand, with a milieu of wealthy oddballs not unlike Harold and Maud, the film is full of unusual, quirky touches and moments of intriguing strangeness, as well as some decent setpieces, such as the one where Henry’s butler urgently extols the virtues of marriage, having noticed that his employer seems to be packing a helluva lot of guns and knives for a camping trip with his new bride. 6/10
The brightly hued Technicolor cinematography comes across very sharply in this HD transfer. An early scene of Matthau riding a horse has a lovely depth and freshness, as does a slightly later one of him sitting in his beloved club. Throughout, details of costumes and décor come up vividly, adding greatly to the film’s charm. 9/10
A 16-min video essay by David Cairns, in which the film academic talks about May’s career (which reached a peak with The Heartbreak Kid and foundered on Ishtar) and the film’s themes and motifs. 6/10