Elaine May’s film directing debut, A New Leaf (1971) is a pitch-black comedy centred on Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), an affluent, self-absorbed bachelor, who finds his expensive lifestyle in jeopardy due to his profligate spending. Henry is encouraged by his devoted, droll butler Harold (George Rose) to marry into money, so as to maintain a life of luxury and retain a high-class status. An ideal candidate for the role of Henry’s wife appears in the form of bookish, introverted and – most importantly to Henry – rich Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). However, Henry also plots Henrietta’s murder, so that he can inherit her fortune and rid himself of a woman he considers an irritating nuisance, as well as an obstacle to resuming the lavish – though solitary – lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.
Henry’s sinister intentions are introduced matter-of-factly, as if disposing of Henrietta is merely the equivalent of discarding an unwanted possession. Brad Stevens cites two examples of violence in May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976), stating, “These examples provide minor representations of what is one of May’s major thematic concerns, that of the horrific as a logical extension of the normal.”1 Although overt violence against a person is not depicted in A New Leaf, Stevens could just as easily be referring to this film, with Henry’s nonchalant approach to his homicidal plans.
Meanwhile, Henrietta is unaware of Henry’s deceit and intentions, as she is shown to be a timid woman who seems only dimly aware of those around her. Although she is gullible, putting too much trust in people who only wish to exploit her, she is fundamentally a decent person. Despite Henrietta’s awkwardness, May never invites the viewer to ridicule her character. Henrietta’s absent-mindedness and clumsiness make her endearing, whilst the viewer’s knowledge that Henry has cruel plans for Henrietta generates sympathy for her. Her interest in botany is not depicted as an idle pastime: in contrast with Henry’s directionless leisurely pursuits, it is a vocation to which she devotes a great deal of time and effort.
Henry may be the point-of-view character in the story, but the film does not endorse his behaviour. As Stevens notes, “A New Leaf adopts the viewpoint of its monstrous male protagonist, but this viewpoint is plainly ironic, insisting that we identify with a position which the film has unambiguously discredited.”2 Even if Henry did not concoct a murderous plan, he is not presented as a likeable or sympathetic character, but rather as a joyless, soulless figure: not a man to be envied or pitied, but instead one that is cowardly and pathetic, despite his outward displays of confidence and opulence.
In the opening scenes, Henry attempts to flee his responsibilities, running away from the truth about his fiscal situation, and using various modes of transportation – car, horse and plane – to do so. However, reality eventually catches up with him: he is flat broke, his funds exhausted, the lifestyle he lived now finished. Henry does not seem to enjoy his wealth, and appears disdainful of his fellow moneyed elite. Aside from the loyal Harold, who stays at his master’s side (and listens to conversations clandestinely through doors at key moments), Henry does not seem to have any sympathetic acquaintances. Even his relatives are uncaring: his Uncle Harry (James Coco) is presented as a monstrous ogre, the personification of the gluttonous and heartless aspects of wealth and privilege.
While the relationship between Henry and Harold is amusingly conspiratorial, the latter is initially unaware of his master’s ultimate plan for Henrietta and is shocked when he realises the nature of Henry’s murderous ambitions. While Harold – a man indoctrinated into the class system, and therefore having a vested interest in maintaining it – is as snobbish and aloof as Henry, he still possesses a conscience, and is not so mercenary and homicidal as to consider murder. Harold recognises Henrietta’s good nature – despite any personal faults she may have – and observes that Henry has found a sense of purpose in helping to order her file, thanks to his marriage to her.
When Henry is eventually ensconced in Henrietta’s estate, he sorts out her accounts and fires her domestic staff, who were – along with some wily assistance from her lawyer, Andy McPherson (Jack Weston) – brazenly exploiting her generosity. Harold sees Henry’s actions as an example of him using his skills in a positive way – his master no longer being ignorant and indolent, but informed and observant. While these efforts are clearly selfish aims on Henry’s part, with the goal being to impose himself on Henrietta’s estate and take control of her money, his marriage to her has awakened some sense of purpose in him and galvanised him into action, in stark contrast to the fear of commitment and abdication of responsibility that defined him in his bachelor days.
Numerous verbal gags hit the mark throughout A New Leaf, which is to be expected considering May’s comedic background prior to this film. However, May and her crew also conceive some amusing and inventive visual sequences. For instance, the film begins with a close-up of what appears to be a cardiac monitor showing a heartbeat, but is revealed to be a gauge monitoring the engine of Henry’s prized sports car as it is overseen by mechanics. Another visual gag shows a grim Henry looking into a mirror and, in the manner of a Grimm fairytale, having visions of how people will view him if he ends up impoverished. It is therefore surprising to read Chuck Stephens’ claim that “rarely has a major modern director seemed so indifferent to the inherent visual virtues of image composition, or to place so little value on the selection of her cinematographers.”3 Stephens’ suggestion that May does not have – or care about – a visual sensibility seems misplaced, at least in the case of A New Leaf, as the film has memorable framing and editing of shots throughout.
In addition to the instances of visual comedy, there are also two striking shots that creatively use foreground and background elements. The first shot occurs when Henry goes to see Uncle Harry to try and secure some money. The scene begins with an extreme close-up, right of screen, of Harry’s grotesque, cackling, wide-open mouth, into which Henry’s head, in the background, left of screen, seems perilously placed. This arresting composition – the face of a powerful figure in the foreground, a helpless victim squirming in the background – is used later during Henry and Henrietta’s honeymoon, with a close-up of Henry at screen left reading a book on toxicology (studying how to murder his new wife) while Henrietta dangles precariously over a cliff, behind him at screen right, looking at plants (also studious, but oblivious to the danger she is in). There is grim irony in the situation: facing away from Henrietta, Henry is unaware that she is in a precarious situation that he could easily exploit to his advantage. Whether May conceived these foreground/background shots or they were suggested by Director of Photography Gayne Rescher (and/or other collaborators), and whether or not a viewer deems them effective, these striking visuals belie the label “indifferent”.
Despite the production woes that apparently affected the film, which Stephens says included post-production interference from the studio “excising the dankest of A New Leaf’s inventions – a number of additional murders and a conclusion involving a watery grave”,4 the film maintains a dark comic edge, its effectiveness – at least to this writer – not obviously blunted by clumsy edits or compromised by obvious omissions of key scenes. Stephens also notes “the extremely qualified sorts of happy endings that May’s films inevitably insist upon” – the type of ending clearly discernible in A New Leaf – and concludes that “whether of their own deeply ambivalent accord, or through the intercession of meddling studios and mendacious critics after the fact, every May film ends ‘happily,’ even if, in doing so, those happy endings mainly serve to further emphasize all the various agonies that her characters have endured along the way.”5 There are agonies between the laughs, ironies amidst the sincerity. Perhaps Henry and Henrietta, two very different lost souls in the same wealthy milieu, were oddly destined for each other (the doubling/echoing of their names certainly underlines this). A New Leaf has humour and heart, but is also caustic and macabre, with the duplicitous Henry and sincere Henrietta precariously coupled in a darkly funny romantic comedy of cross-purposes.
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A New Leaf (1971 USA 102 mins)
Prod. Co: Aries Films, Elkins Productions Prod: Joe Manduke Dir: Elaine May Scr: Elaine May Phot: Gayne Rescher Ed: Donald Guidice, Fredric Steinkamp, Edward Beyer (uncredited) Prod. Des: Warren Clymer, Richard Fried
Cast: Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, William Redfield